It's getting to the point where writing about Harry Potter is a lot like writing about Jesus. That's not to say that I'm comparing the two. It's just that, like Jesus, Harry Potter has his believers, and if you say something they don't like, they'll let you know.
J.K. Rowling's incredibly popular book series has prompted legions of children and adults to read. But that doesn't mean that all that reading is sparking much intelligent thought. Like many people who profess to read the Bible, there are devout readers of the Potter books who know how to read the story but haven't quite mastered thinking. We're fast approaching a time when we'll be seeing bumper stickers that read: "Dear Harry Potter, protect me from your followers."
The sad part of all this is that Harry Potter is a pretty cool guy. Like Jesus, he is loyal to his friends, he's on a path to personal betterment, and he can perform cool magic tricks. But the cultural phenomenon surrounding Harry and his companions at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has grown into something greater than it should be. And as the film adaptation of the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, arrives in theaters, expectations are high, as fans anticipate what they believe will be a "darker" film. Of course, the advance word calling Prisoner of Azkaban "the best film in the series" only builds on the fever-pitched Potter frenzy.
Whether or not Prisoner of Azkaban is the best so far really comes down to a matter of preference. It is, most certainly, a darker film than Sorcerer's Stone or Chamber of Secrets. But so, too, is the book. As the film kicks off, Harry and company are preparing for their third year at Hogwarts. Now in their teens, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) are venturing into those turbulent waters known as adolescence--a dark and scary time for anyone, wizards and muggles alike.
For Harry this time is especially difficult, for without a real parental figure in his life, he has no one to turn to. When dreaded evil wizard Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) escapes from Azkaban Prison and is feared to be making his way to Hogwarts, Harry discovers that his life is in danger. Black was the best friend of Harry's parents, as well as the teenager's godfather, but his betrayal of the Potters led to their murder at the hands of the nefarious Voldemort. Harry, who is beginning to grasp the extent of his own powers, vows to avenge his parents by killing Black.
Director Alfonso Cuarón inherits the cinematic reins to the Potter universe from Chris Columbus (Home Alone), who helmed the first two installments. Cuarón's most recent film was the brilliant and sexually charged Y Tu Mamá También, sparking much debate whether the Mexican director would bring a sexy edge or dark exploration of adolescence to Prisoner of Azkaban.
Unfortunately, this is a Harry Potter movie--Warner Bros.' incredibly lucrative franchise that will be generating billions of dollars for years to come--and no one, not even Deep Throat director Gerard Damiano, has the cinematic clout to mess with that. (Steven Spielberg didn't direct the first film because Rowling wouldn't allow an American to be cast in the lead.)
Translation for fans of the sultriest bits of Y Tu Mamá: There are no scenes with Ron and Harry double-teaming Hermione. Cuarón also directed Great Expectations and Shirley Temple-remake A Little Princess, and this is as dark as a PG-rated film based on the most popular children's book series of all time is going to get. And all of that is well and good, because at the end of the day, the movie works.
What makes Prisoner of Azkaban so successful is that, like the earlier films in the franchise, it actually adapts the book from which it takes its name. Unlike, say, the James Bond films, which for years took the titles from Ian Fleming books but kept recycling the same stories, each Harry Potter film stands as its own story.
In some ways the second and third films are like the final two films in the Lord of the Rings trilogy--sequels for the initiated, with little context or exposition to explain past events. In other words, this is not really a series you just jump into without seeing or reading what came first. You can do it, but it probably won't be as fun.
Rated PG Opens Friday, June 4.
To see how Harry compares with other famous Potters, see page 12.