This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
With the series’ third installment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the story of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his adventures at the Hogwarts School have been put in the hands of director Alfonso Cuarón. He is a filmmaking wizard, and the film is nothing less than magical. It is easily the best of the first three Harry Potter pictures. It looks more elegant from the outset: Cuarón and cinematographer Michael Seresin favor a darker, subtler palette than was used in the first two outings. The spectacularly composed visuals are alive with mystery and nuance. A romantic sensibility is at work. It can be seen in the gorgeous use of the Scottish landscapes where the film was shot, as well as in the emphasis on nature imagery. Cuarón knows there’s nothing more magical than the sight of an unusual animal or the signs of changes in the seasons. (He has particular fun with the giant, cantankerous Whomping Willow. The film’s most delightful bit is the shot where it shakes the snow off its branches--some of which lands on the camera lens. The most thrilling moment is the tussle with it during the pursuit of the story’s villain.) The visual bravura isn’t merely decorative. Cuarón is a storyteller first and foremost, and everything he does is in service to his material. Metamorphoses and the hidden sides of people’s lives are at the heart of the narrative, and his imagery reinforces this every step of the way. It also helps to render Harry’s increasing maturity and emotional complexity. The film is more intense than the first two pictures, but Cuarón does justice to the carnival aspects of the material. The students’ first encounter with a boggart is the slapstick high point of the series thus far. Emma Thompson’s scenes as Professor Trelawney run a close second. The picture also has its exhilarating side, such as with Harry’s flight on the back of the magnificent half-horse-half-eagle hippogriff, or the supremely satisfying moment when Hermione (Emma Watson) punches out the class king bee. The screenplay, adapted from J. K. Rowling’s novel, is again by Steve Kloves.