How delightful. Bothered and beleaguered by his egregiously blustery Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris), Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) takes a decision that many kids in the audience will love (no matter your age). Wagging his young wizardy finger, he turns her into exactly what she sounds like, a big hot air balloon. Her feet swell out of her shoes and her buttons pop off her blouse, she literally becomes too large for the room, and floats off into the big blue sky. And her brother, Harry’s thoroughly unpleasant with Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths), can only cling briefly and feebly to her plumped up legs, as she floats away over clotheslines and rooftops. Young Harry, meanwhile, watches from the kitchen, quite pleased by the little bit of evil he has wrought.
Of course, you share his pleasure. This even as he’s stepped outside the goody-boy affect for which the budding wizard is renowned. Harry’s only exposed Marge for the self-puffing monster she is. He hasn’t really done wrong. And when, at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry stomps off from Vernon’s home, you know it’s only for the good, and that the boy might thank whatever forces are at work to deliver him from his misery. You might also be thankful, as this third installment in the movie series (in case you haven’t heard), directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también), who brings to the franchise a newly inventive sensibility, and, most important, an appreciation for smart cuts and brevity, especially the requisite Quidditch scene, mercifully short, dark, and stormy.
That’s not to say that Harry precisely strikes out on his own, only that he’s got a little gumption this time, as well as an apparent ticket to nowheresville. At least until he hooks up with a triple-decker, deep purple Emergency Transport for Stranded Witches and Wizards, sent to pick him up, as he wanders down a darkening street looking forlorn and not very independent at all. Visibly relieved to be rescued from incipient adulthood, Harry clambers aboard the bus, whereupon he endures a wild, vaguely slapsticky ride through urban streets and a literal, ghosty squeezing through traffic, while a rasta shrunken head (Lenny Henry) dangles ominously in the transport’s front window.
So much for racial diversity. The Harry Potter movies are nothing if not formulaic (the first two, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, are directed by this one’s producer, Chris Columbus), and so this minor adventure leads more or less directly to the train ride to Hogwarts, accompanied by pals Ron (Rupert Grint, who seems progressively more reduced to “comic relief”) and Hermione (the increasingly self-assured and quite lovely Emma Watson). On learning that he’s in grave danger from a recently escaped prisoner, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, with not nearly enough to do), convicted and insane murderer of his parents, Harry rather takes it in stride. There’s always someone plotting to do away with him.
And then Harry meets a Dementor, one of the soul-sucking, grimly wraithy, aggressively floaty guards assigned to look after the prison, Azkaban, from which Sirius has escaped. The very fact of that escape intimates that, for all their creepiness (mostly borrowed from the Lord of the Rings‘ ringwraiths), these creatures don’t have much control over humans with a mind to get over on them. Still, Harry’s duly disturbed by the cheesy “sucking” effects they wreak on his face, and ready to accept help from a newbie instructor at Hogwarts, the obviously named Professor Lupin (David Thewlis).
Though Lupin asserts that Harry might control his fears and wield his wand like the able little wizard he’s born to be, once again, the boy has doubts. He also has a map that tells him where anyone is at the school, little footprints magically traipsing across its surface until he commands it closed and erased. The map, when it’s working, makes for a nifty, if fleeting, trick. It’s also yet another sign of Harry’s willingness to bend and break rules when it suits him, the hint of his darkness and resentment at the heavy burden left by his dead (and so ostensibly perfect) folks as well as all those who now look at him knowingly and sympathetically when they tell him just how well they knew his dear mum or dad.
Busted with the illegal map by the blackly snaky Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), Harry doesn’t back down, so much as he works on annoying the darkest wizard even more roundly. Coming into his own powers, Harry gains confidence almost in spite of himself. While he’s repeatedly dragged back into that tiresome archetypal father’s legacy saga, Harry’s rebelliousness (on its surface) grants him at least the nerve to follow after Hermione, who eventually leads him on an adventure more interesting than anything immediately visible on his own horizon.
Lupin is on the edge of that horizon. He and Harry share a sweet, vaguely portentous moment of bonding while the rest of the kids go shopping (Harry stays behind). Lupin goes on to teach Harry about proper wand handling, the father figure who can’t quite help his baser inclinations, though he may or may not have Harry’s best interests at heart (this might also be noted upfront: the transformations from one species to another in the film are less than inspired).
Still, the primary teaching, as always, takes place among the three best friends, as Hermione comes up with a terrific last sequence, reordering time and space in ways that are initially quite beyond the boys’ comprehension. Her matter of fact handling of this dislocation of multiple continuums is both adorable and fitting; the boys look considerably less interesting whenever she’s on screen, she being, again, the creature most in-between. Or wait — she has a run for that money in the form of yet another new “pet” introduced by Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), half-horse, half-eagle beastie called a Hippogriff, whose dislocation from any corporeal register inhabited by the kids makes it look mostly lost. Fortunately, the kids are better effects than anything the technicians conjure up. One day, perhaps, during this seemingly endless series, the filmmakers can realize this.