The third installment in the motion picture series based on J.K. Rowling’s children’s novels, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, offers a mythical hero whose mind is his means of understanding the world and whose happiness is his primary goal.
This time, a more mature Harry Potter asserts some degree of independence — itself a radical characteristic in movies — and he exhibits virtues rarely depicted on screen. He acts based on judgments, not whims. He makes choices based on his own interest, not on the approval of others. He may, in a given instance, be afraid, but he is not a coward. Harry Potter is more interesting than the glut of ogres, lost fish and vapid twins dominating what passes for kids’ fare on the silver screen.
Harry Potter is also measurably superior — not egalitarian — and he is not alone. The latest movie’s suspense takes Harry Potter to the familiar Hogwarts school, where he is joined by his wizard friends — smart Hermione Granger, whose intelligence is portrayed as an asset, not as an object of ridicule, and Ron Weasley, a friend whose humorous facial expressions are hilariously honest, not asinine.
Free will, intelligence, honesty — Harry Potter’s values are hardly what many of today’s attention-starved, Ritalin-popping kids get from computer-generated characters who talk like a Letterman monologue or act like they belong in Animal House or both.
Harry Potter movies are more like Saturday morning adventure serials. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, director Alfonso Cuaron generally maintains the striking visual style of Chris Columbus’ previous pictures (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and writer Steven Kloves delivers another good script, suitable for a family matinee (except for small children).
Harry Potter’s new friend, Buckbeak, is a lively integration of fantasy and reality, more intimate than wisecracking monsters and far more compelling than a stream of flashy pictures packed with plotless action. Those who created Buckbeak for the screen deserve the highest praise; his color, his movements, and his interaction with live actors provide moments of genuine wonder. Having something to look up to is a sharp contrast to the sneering cable television cartoon mentality prevalent in most kids’ movies.
The British accents and the story are occasionally hard to follow and the climax doesn’t match the first two movies. But this fantasy does not substitute crude humor for plot; its light mythology is the story of a boy facing the world with reason as his highest attribute. At its core, Harry Potter, like its literary source, is conceptual. Harry Potter likes to think.
For today’s child, especially for the youngster who reads and thinks, Harry Potter is a reprieve from the sensory-level assault on the mind. Setting a children’s tale to the broad — and, in these trying times, relevant — notion that joy is possible in the darkest hours, Harry Potter is both happy and smart.
That Harry Potter is happy because he is smart and that he is the purpose of his own happiness puts the latest story — which ought to be judged as part of a progression — high above Hollywood’s junk heap. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a magical antidote to mindlessness because it dramatizes that the child who chooses to think is the happiest child on earth.
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