This is a shadier film than Chris Columbus's first two - its skies are overcast for the most part, its title rendered in cold, steely silver rather than the golds that lit up the screen previously - and in a world of baffling climate change (all sun-dappled fields one day, thick snow the next) which unintentionally comes to represent Warner's uncertainty over this latest instalment's release date (previous Potter films were Christmas releases), Cuaron's eye for the natural world is self-evidently stronger than his predecessor's. Frustratingly, though, the formula remains much the same: no one director is ever going to alter this lucrative a brand, and Azkaban duly turns out to be the sort of film that will prove, if not the death of auteurism exactly, then a perversion of it, where the author of the original source material (J.K. Rowling) holds greater sway than the talented screenwriter and director adapting it, and where the latter two have been paid too much for their services to do anything other than assemble the required pieces in the prescribed order. The next film in the series, based on the longest of the published books to date, is to be directed by the defiantly unspectacular Mike Newell, so don't go expecting any changes there.
Of course, none of this matters if you just want your movies to do a job, to be, well, functional: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban will play in a lot of cinemas, where it will make a lot of money for some already very rich people. On the plus side, Steve Kloves' screenplay is a little leaner - there's less Quidditch (the literary world's most pointless sport) in a rain-affected match - and this film comes in a good quarter of an hour shorter than the previous two. (It could have been shorter still: a time-travel device means the final half-hour, like much of the rest of the film, comes to repeat on itself - a side effect of mass consumption, I guess.) The new additions to the Hogwarts faculty (Emma Thompson, David Thewlis and Michael Gambon, replacing Richard Harris as Dumbledore) are welcome. And the opening scenes - mired in suburbia once again, with Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw as the step-parents from hell - play even more like a kiddie version of Abigail's Party; this time round, we get Pam Ferris as Griffiths's bloated sister, and Jim Davidson's Generation Game on the telly as the ultimate signifier of bourgeois hell. (How on earth did the American Kloves and the Mexican Cuaron come up with that?, you wonder.)
The Mike Leighisms apparent in both casting and characterisation are underlined during a showdown late in the film that puts three of Leigh's leading men in the same room, almost too great a coincidence for a film as impersonal as this to handle. Like the 007 films, Potter is now so established as a profit-turning exercise, with a hero so essentially untouchable, that the mind drifts off during the slower patches to consider what even more individual filmmakers, such as Leigh, might make of the assignment: one clings to the vain hope there might yet be an improved, hand-held Dogme movie somewhere in future Potter books. Azkaban's one stand-out feature is that while Emma Watson's Hermione and Rupert Grint's Ron haven't developed much beyond their stock roles of posh bird and proletarian oik, the central character is being increasingly shaped by actor Daniel Radcliffe's own personality.
Out of his school uniform, this Potter sports a haircut, the leisurewear and a series of temper tantrums that wouldn't appear too far out of place adorning the lead singer of an indie band beginning with the definite article. (Further credentials are supplied by an early cameo from - I kid you not - Ian Brown of The Stone Roses, whose presence momentarily threatens to turn The Leaky Cauldron into a wizardly equivalent of the Met Bar.) The good news for Rowling, Warner Bros., any future directors of these films, and their accountants is that - even as the formula around him has settled into hat as old as the one on Dumbledore's head - Harry Potter just got cool; as cool as the teenage hero of a multi-million dollar corporate franchise based on a best-selling childrens' books can get, at any rate.