Just when one thought that the Harry Potter franchise was becoming jaded, the third film in the series casts a spell with its soaring action, especially the sequence when Harry rides through the air on the half-horse, half-eagle called hippogriff. Adding to the magic are the comic touches and a dark, gritty atmosphere. Many people, especially the older audiences, will rightly conclude as the best of the first three films.
Yet, Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, who directed the biggest film of his career, as the $130 million budget is at least twice the combined costs of his previous films (Y Tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess, Great Expectations), fails on two counts. He has not been able to invest the film with a strong, emotional appeal. And he has not been able to maintain a brisk pace throughout the film.
While Cuaron's latest film cannot be missed and has to be admired for its rousing action, mysterious look and likeable performances, you must see his smaller film A Beautiful Princess, made about ten years ago, to appreciate his true magical touch. Though the film was a mild success, it remains one of the most enchanting films ever made about young people. It is also said to be a favourite with the Harry Potter author J K Rowling.
The central characters in the new film, including aspiring wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, who offers a natural and engaging performance), are teenagers now, and we get to see quite a bit of Harry's temper especially when he punishes a nasty aunt (Pam Ferries) by turning her into a balloon.
Note that Cuaron has casually given the film a contemporary flair more apt to the teen characters by getting them to wear jeans in one or two sequences. He has also handled the fleeting hormonal attraction between Harry's best buddies delicately and well.
After quarrelling with his foster parents, The Dursleys, Harry takes a fantastical ride on a triple-decker bus. The sequence, which lasts for about five minutes, is one of the eeriest and suspenseful pieces in the film. Later, another fantastical ride on a train provides plenty of suspense and great, dark visuals.
As Harry returns to Hogwarts Academy, he hears that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a former friend of his late parents and who was convicted of involvement in their deaths, has escaped from the Azkaban Prison. Hogwarts is now guarded by the frightening, hooded Dementors who are supposed to keep Black off the academy and off Harry Potter.
Harry makes friends with the mysterious Professor Lupin (a delightful David Thewlis), who was also a friend of his murdered parents. But Lupin has a big secret, which eventually provides a mild surprise to those who have not read the J K Rowling book.
Apart from Lupin, the faculty has a new member: an eccentric professor of Divination (Emma Thompson). With her Coke-bottle glasses and her preoccupation with the tea leaves that she has problems in poring over, Thompson offers solid laughs. The school is now run by seasoned British stage and movie actor Michael Gambon, who has taken over from the late Richard Harris.
As Harry and his two close buddies Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (an enchanting Emma Watson), have their share of adventures and misadventures, they have to confront startling revelations and surprises.
The last 30 minutes of the film show the trio going back in time to undo certain dangerous and tragic events. Hermione, who has developed the trick of being in two places at the same time, puts her skill to excellent use in the suspenseful, yet delightful, climactic sequence.
While watching some of the new characters in the film is fun, there is additional delight in seeing the friendly giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) being promoted to faculty.
But the script (and perhaps the editing room) has let down a number of wonderful artists. One just cannot understand why Julie Christie, veteran of many award-winning films such as Dr Zhivago, was cast in a listless role. Another grand dame of the British stage and cinema, Maggie Smith, has hardly anything to do as the grumpy professor who cannot make an exception or two.
Eagle-eyed viewers will also notice a desi kid in the film. Sitara Shah, who is not referred by name in the film, gets to be around for two or three minutes, playing the student, Parvati Patil.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Tom Felton, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, Sirius Black, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Screenplay: Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J K Rowling
Director of photography: Michael Seresin
Production designer: Stuart Craig
Editor: Steven Weisberg
Running time: 140 minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros Pictures