The first two Potter films, mega-hits though they were, didn’t quite capture the magic or depth of the original novels. One of the great achievements of Rowling’s books has been that they appeal just as much to parents as to their offspring. The first two movies were bland, broad, ultra-commercial entertainment aimed at children, rather than the modern myths with which J.K. Rowling has captured the imagination of the world.
The third of the series, helmed by the Mexican Alfonso Cuaron, a very different director from Chris (Home Alone) Columbus, departs more from the letter of the book – it had to, or it would have run five hours – but does a much better job of capturing its spirit and flamboyancy of imagination.
It’s by far the most ambitious of the three, with more lyricism, more magic and even more laughs. Screenwriter Steve Kloves finally seems confident enough to contribute some genuinely funny gags of his own.
The special effects are getting better all the time; and the big ones here – the flying hippogriff, the werewolf, the whomping willow and the horrifying dementors – really work. Whereas Dobby the house elf of the last movie was essentially light relief, these effects really do help create an atmosphere of magic, tension and excitement. The hippogriff, in particular, has character, wildness and weight – its triumph is that it really doesn’t look like a special effect at all, but a living, breathing animal.
Whereas the first two Potter films were workmanlike visualisations of Rowling, this one has more of the visual and atmospheric flair that Peter Jackson brought to The Lord of the Rings.
Cuaron’s previous movies, a beautiful but commercially unsuccessful version of A Little Princess and the Mexican road movie Y Tu Mama Tambien, suggested that he was a classier director than Columbus; and this movie confirms it. Whereas in Y Tu Mama Tambien, Cuaron was concerned with the transition from teenager to adult, here he’s just as sensitive at tracing the transition from child to teenager.
There’s much more feeling of the three leading child characters undergoing an emotional journey, not just reacting to a succession of arbitrary plot developments.
This film, like the novel, is by far the longest and most frightening episode so far. Be warned that those not sympathetic to the world of the book may find it a little slow (pacing is not Cuaron’s strong point), and two hours 20 minutes is a long time if you’re a small child.
Kiddies who coped with the first two may find this one too horrific to bear. The Dementors (which are scarier versions of the Dark Riders in The Fellowship of the Ring) are enough to give anyone nightmares, and I mean that as a compliment.
Hogwarts, exquisitely designed by Stuart Craig, looks bigger and more beautiful than ever, but it also has a more Gothic, menacing feel.
In this episode, Harry Potter is entering stroppy adolescence, and his horrible Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) and snobbish Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) are noticeably, and rightly, more scared of him as an angry young man than they were of him as a child.
Harry plays a magical practical joke on the thoroughly deserving Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris in full battleaxe mode), turning her into a human barrage balloon and floating her out of the Dursleys’ French windows.
Fearing punishment, Harry runs off into the night and is rescued from a menacing black dog by a fantastical triple-decker bus, which takes him to the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy).
To his surprise, Harry isn’t punished for illegally using magic on a defenceless muggle, but is packed off to a third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Thanks to a brief meeting with his friend Ron’s parents the Weasleys (Julie Walters and Mark Williams), Harry realises that the reason he is being given preferential treatment is that madman Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from prison and is trying to murder him.
Hogwarts is defended from Sirius by some terrifying creatures, the Dementors, who seem to have an unhealthy interest in – and effect upon - Harry. Fortunately, Hogwarts’ new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) is on hand to shield him from their worst effects.
Not only Harry has problems at Hogwarts. Ron (Rupert Grint) keeps losing his pet rat Scabbers. Harry’s arch-enemy Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton, much improved) is determined to get Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) fired and his Hippogriff killed. And Hermione (Emma Watson) has developed a mysterious knack of seeming to be in two places at the same time.
The rest of the plot has numerous ingenious twists and turns, and it is to the film-makers’ credit that they transfer it from the novel pretty much intact. It introduces Emma Thompson in full Margaret Rutherford mode as the scatty Divination Professor Trelawney and the great Timothy Spall in a role whose nature I shall not reveal.
Most of the old favourites are back, including Alan Rickman as the ever-sinister Snape, Robbie Coltrane as the kindly Hagrid, Maggie Smith as the stern Professor McGonagall, and Michael Gambon, taking over from the late Richard Harris as everyone's ideal grandfather, Professor Dumbledore. There are also cameos from Lenny Henry, Dawn French, Paul Whitehouse and Freddie “Parrotface” Davis.
I’ve always had reservations about the child leads and not all their line-readings are perfect even this time round, but they’re all learning on the job. Rupert Grint has conquered his tendency to pull faces and is now able to pitch lines at a level that doesn’t suggest he’s desperate to raise a laugh. As a result, he’s quite a bit funnier.
Daniel Radcliffe copes reasonably well, and certainly very likeably, with Harry’s growth into a confused adolescent and a much more formidable wizard. He doesn’t always appear to have a firm grasp on the through-line of his role, but he’s helped very unselfishly by the grown-up actors, especially Michael Gambon, David Thewlis and Gary Oldman, all of them excellent here, never treating the material as anything other than serious and grown-up.
And Emma Watson has real star quality as Hermione. She’s improved the most of the trio at giving the impression of being, not acting, and gets the biggest laughs of the film with her awkward transition from anxious nerd to confident action-woman. She still has a way to go before she’s the next Helena Bonham Carter, but you can see how she might yet make the perilous transition to adult film star.
There are some especially well-judged moments between Hermione and Ron which suggest the first stirrings of an embarrassing sexual attraction, which I suspect will lay the groundwork for developments later in the Rowling canon.
The first two Potter films were definitely children’s movies, for good and ill; this one has a darker tone, and much more of a mythic quality. It’s closer to classics like Dracula and Frankenstein, than it is to Disney.
Parents of small children should think twice before exposing them to scenes that 30 years ago would have incurred an X certificate, but creatively and in the long run this more mature approach is all to the good.
It should enable the ongoing series to appeal to children who have grown up with the Potter novels and are now themselves entering adolescence. The first two films were highly successful exercises in commercial calculation; this one, though no less worthy of being a box office blockbuster, is starting to look uncommonly like art.