In the third installment of the very exciting and lucrative Harry Potter film franchise, we have a dark fantasy horror film for the adolescents among us - and maybe us as well.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is directed by Alfonso Cuaron (E tu mama tambien; Great Expectations, A Little Princess) since Chris Columbus signed off, and I think he respects the films and the books very much. True, I have only read the first volume and half of the second, but we get the idea of how the books have been interpreted for the screen.
This film is more linear than the others, I think. Easier to follow.
Harry, Ron and Hermione meet at some kind of road house before going back to school, and they are no longer kids. They are very definitely teenagers, though they aren't into music yet. Harry is standing up for himself to his obnoxious relatives even more than before. Mr. Weasley gives Harry an ominous warning about an escaped criminal, Serius Black, whose image in the wanted posters keeps taunting us - he is a murderer and he is looking for Harry.
Back at Hogwart's, there are new teachers, Prof. Lupin (note the root of that name; it's important!), Prof. Sybil Trelawney (Emma Thompson, an eccentric almost blind teacher of clairvoyance) and even the children's gamekeeper friend Hagrid gets a teaching post. But there is menace in the air, and Dementors, creatures who cannot tell the difference between the good guys and the bad ones, faceless beings that suck the very soul out of their victims, guard the gates of the school so Serius cannot get in.
The story is about discovering Serius' relationship with Harry and what other characters have to do with the life and murder of Harry's parents. Friendship is a major theme of the story as is love and sacrifice for others.
The special effects are wonderful, though, dark and scary. There is a Big Bird here that reminded me of a fantasy version of a velociraptor from Jurassic Park ... he plays an important part in the story. I noticed the kids in the theater couldn't sit still or stop talking (I always like to observe how audience's react to films...) -different behavior from the other films. I think it's too intense for young children, in general. Parents, of course, know their children best and can judge what is appropriate or not for their ages (or whether they want to spend their time following their kids in and out of the theater.)
The controversy about the occult vis-a-vis fantasy will arise again from this film. As one educational expert put it, in the universe created by myth, the occult is about a malevolent worldview that wants to take control of the world and shape it in its own image; there are no caring people or sense of community or love; but fantasy is about a benevolent worldview, and where children are concerned, there are caring adults, and people learn pro-social lessons about life.
All thoughtful film viewers might want to spend some time researching the meaning of metaphor, analogy, myth, and fairytale because we live in a visual story-telling culture. We use stories to figure out the meaning of life.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was a little slow getting off the ground, but the last 45 minutes or so were complex enough to be pretty interesting ... and scary!