Director Alfonso Cuaron has taken the images conjured by J.K. Rowling's magical words and created from her book, 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,' a film rife with visual symbolism and alive with inventive images beyond those established by the first two films in the series. Cuaron, a native of Mexico City and the acclaimed director of the completely compelling, frequently hilarious and sexually explicit coming-of-age film, 'Y tu mama tambien,' was seen by many as an odd choice to follow heartland American Chris Columbus into the Harry Potter director's chair. The selection has resulted in a film darker and more mature than its predecessors, just as was the book, but it is also as approachable for young people as Cuaron's other internationally heralded work, 'A Little Princess.'
It is late in the summer. Harry (a decidedly more assertive Daniel Radcliffe, making his third appearance in the leading role) is at the Dursleys in Privet Drive, preparing for his third year at Hogwart's, when an obnoxious relative demeans his father's memory, causing Harry to lose his temper. As a result, Harry violates the rules of student witches and wizards, causing the offending aunt to inflate as a dirigible and float away into the night sky on an stream of invectives. It is a delightful opening to a film with far more serious issues to explore and frightening obstacles to overcome. Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), imprisoned at Azkaban for complicity in the murder of Harry's parents, has escaped, and is looking for Harry. The soul-stealing prison guards called 'Dementors' (Latin for mind-removers) are searching for Black everywhere, but when he and Harry meet, there are revelations which change everything.
The symbolism in the film is fascinating. Rowling is responsible for a lot of it, but Cuaron has used symbolism as a visual tool to alert the audience to impending danger and to keep tensions high. Traditionally, black-feathered birds such as ravens, crows, and vultures all have negative images associated with them; they are usually used to represent carnage, bloodshed and battle; they are thought of in terms of scavengers, messengers of the dead, and evil. Crows abound in this film, but Cuaron has extended their traditional roles, turning them into symbols of the Dementors, which fly around menacingly in black garments with feather-like hems. Even when the Dementors are out of sight (they are not allowed on the grounds of Hogwart's School) you can feel their presence in the crows.
Rowling's most obvious use of symbolism is in the name she gives the escaped prisoner Sirius Black. Sirius is a star in the constellation Canis Majoris (in mythology, Canis Majoris is one of Orion's hunting dogs; the Greater Dog), the brightest star in the sky. So, Sirius is also called the Dog Star, and everyone knows that the dog is distinguished above all other inferior animals for intelligence, docility, and attachment to man. Would she give such a name, with all its implications, to a villainous character? Not likely. But she would give it to a wizard who could change into a dog.
Among the new visual images are animal ghosts which wander the halls of Hogwart's Castle and the film's realization of Buckbeak the Hippogriff, like Sirius, falsely accused and condemned. Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and all of the established characters return. Led by Harry, all the students have matured considerably, as you would expect of 13-year-olds; they are more independent and self assured, more emotionally developed and far less childlike in their reactions and bearing. Michael Gambon is new and effective as Aldus Dumbledore, following the death of Richard Harris. Emma Thompson is wonderfully wacky as Divination Professor Sybil Treelawney; who leaps from the pages of the book and onto the screen as if Rowling had written the character specifically for Thompson. Also new is Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor Remus Lupin (David Thewles), who comes to Harry's aid in ways that might befit his Latin name. Remus was the brother of the founder of Rome. In mythology, he was nursed by a she-wolf; Lupin means wolf-like (wolf is Canis Lupis).
The unheralded thread of creative continuity in this marvelous series, as it moves from Chris Columbus to Alfonso Cuaron to incoming director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, now in production) is Screenwriter Steve Kloves. He and the producers have been true to Rowling's works and to Harry's fans, in ways that have always enhanced, not diminished, the author's incredible achievement.