I'm a latecomer to the whole Harry Potter franchise. I never read the books, and eschewed the first two movies because I'd heard they were unimaginative, if slavishly faithful, adaptations. But I had heard such advance praise of Azkaban that my curiosity was piqued; no less so because of its director, Alfonso Cuarón. So I rented the first two Potter movies before heading out to the theatre to see Azkaban.
This proved to be a worthwhile exercise, not so much because I got caught up on the Potter backstory, but because to see The Chamber of Secrets just a day before The Prisoner of Azkaban is a lesson in how much a difference a director makes, even in a carefully-managed franchise like Harry Potter. Chris Columbus, who helmed Chamber as well as The Sorceror's Stone, was never known as a great filmmaker. But compared to Cuarón's work, Columbus' input seems like pure hack work. He must be congratulating his successor through gritted teeth, as anybody who sees the films can't help but realize that Alfonso Cuarón is an artist; Columbus, merely a hired hand. Well, we can at least thank Columbus for finding such a great cast in the first place.
Cuarón, well aware that both his characters and the young actors portraying them are now clearly teenagers, has set out to make a mature film, far from Columbus's gee-whiz kiddie fare. (One could argue, perhaps, that the Spielbergian wonderment on display in the Columbus films befit the tales of the prepubescent Potter.) Harry and friends now prefer contemporary teenage clothes, their hair's a little punkier, and their behavior's more aggressive. And Cuarón slips in numerous allusions to teenage life: the opening of the movie has Harry playing with his magic wand under the bedsheets, for crying out loud!
This is the most subversive of the Potter films, and the folks at Warner Bros. must have been very brave or very blind to let Cuarón mold Rowling's story to fit his own personal vision. Most notable is his take on this year's Dark Arts Professor, Remus Lupin (wistfully played by the great David Thewlis), as being possibly gay. Lupin not only reunites rather intimately with the titular prisoner (Gary Oldman), but his "curse" is played as a metaphor for his sexuality. At the end of the film, when he resigns from Hogwarts, he sadly talks about being "outed" at school, and how although the children's parents would be upset, he's used to the judgment by now. It's a distinct change from Rowling's original story, where Lupin quits primarily because he fears he is a physical danger to the children.
In any event, Prisoner of Azkaban is easily the best of the three Harry Potter films thus far (even composer John Williams is jostled awake, and the bloated, theme-heavy music from Chamber of Secrets is replaced by a moodier, Renaissance-inflected score, which is leagues better). It will be interesting to see how director Mike Newell handles the fourth film, The Goblet of Fire, as he's known for being an "actor's director", if uninspired around a camera.