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ON FILM MANOHLA DARGIS

Harry Potter and the wizardry of an auteur

Like the gifted journeymen of old Hollywood, Alfonso Cuaron turns the studio system into a vehicle for his personal vision, and art.

June 13, 2004|MANOHLA DARGIS

Once upon a classic Hollywood time (i.e., before "Jaws" and "Star Wars"), American movies were overrun with hacks, but there were always journeymen mixed into the studio pot along with the occasional visionary. The talented ones rarely spoke of themselves as artists. A few wore monocles, one puffed himself up with a "Von" (Erich von Stroheim) and most had egos the size of back lots. Disingenuous or not, many also evinced the same low-key attitude to their career evident in John Ford's comments to Peter Bogdanovich: "To me, it was always a job of work -- which I enjoyed immensely -- and that's it."

On the face of it, there isn't much to connect an old-school auteur like Ford with a new-school auteur like Alfonso Cuaron, director of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." Ford's landscape was famously America itself -- its myths, its wars, its good people and bad -- while Cuaron's landscape, geographic and moral, has yet to be determined. (Cuaron has directed just five features; by the time Ford was the Mexican director's age, 42, he had directed more than 70 features. Old Hollywood was a terrific training ground.) Despite their personal and professional differences, a common thread binds these filmmakers. They're visionaries, yes, but coupled with the scope of their respective visions is the sense of a job of work well done.

Ten days after its release, the latest movie adaptation of J.K. Rowling's fantastically popular series has earned sufficient critical praise and box-office lucre that it doesn't seem in need of further hosannas. Still, even with the glowing reviews and stampeding fans it's worth underscoring what is most wondrous about this film: that Cuaron's personal vision managed to pierce one of the largest commercial juggernauts in recent memory. This is no small feat given the suspect pedigree of the first two features (namely director Chris Columbus) and a tsunami of movie-merchandise (action figures, striped neckties and limited-edition illustrations costing $695 a pop) that might engulf the whole enterprise if not for the steady force of Cuaron's vision.

That Cuaron managed to conquer the "Potter" juggernaut -- rather than the other way around -- stands as one of the most hopeful movie stories of the year. Cuaron declined the offer to direct the next "Potter" film, citing exhaustion, but with this film he has pulled off twinned triumphs: He's made a film that's loyal to the imaginative spirit of its source material and also stands firmly on its own aesthetic merits. That's why critics who grouse that Cuaron's "Harry Potter" isn't faithful to the letter of Rowling's book miss the point. It is precisely the director's unfaithfulness -- his interpretation of the original text, not some fundamentalist reading -- that makes the difference. The first two Harry Potter features were doggedly true to the books, but unlike Cuaron's film they're absent any comparable sense of wide-eyed wonder.

Setting the tone

Early in the film, a bird soars above the grounds of Hogwarts, the school for young witches and wizards. With the start of the new semester, Harry's hopes for the coming year appear as lofty and seemingly carefree as this airborne surfer. Alas, we aren't allowed to marvel at this creature for long: Within a few wing beats, a giant willow tree unfolds its branches and knocks it out of the park like Barry Bonds. Here, even the most innocent of creatures stands a chance of being whacked, a cruelly relevant moral for such unsteady times and one slyly funny image.

This bird-tree collision (which repeats at the end of the film) isn't in the book. Rather, like the sight and sounds of the children's choir singing lines from "Macbeth" -- something wicked this way comes indeed! -- it's genuine movie magic.

In best storybook tradition, Cuaron has fashioned a fanciful tale and he's done so by making his own movie -- not J.K. Rowling's. Awash with visual wit and shocking beauty, filled with fanciful stylistic fillips and shaded by dark colors and equally dark emotions, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" proves that what Andre Bazin called "the genius of the system" endures, despite the system's relentless, self-immolating attempts to quash that genius. Big Hollywood no longer makes movies the way movies were made under the classical system. And yet ... and yet ... every so often Big Hollywood unleashes a David Fincher, hires a Curtis Hanson, asks Steven Soderbergh to play studio-hooky and gives Cuaron a huge honking train set, and I am reminded that despite all the dollars and studio nonsense, every so often art happens.

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