It's often called one of the series's best films and a big improvement on Chris Columbus's first two. Did I thus come to it with unrealistic expectations, perhaps? I ended up slightly disappointed. It's a Harry Potter film. I enjoyed it, but mostly in the same way that I like all of these films, because I like Harry Potter. To be honest, I find it hard to disentangle them in my mind. It takes a little effort to imagine them as eight individual movies, rather than as eight instalments of a single 800 pound gorilla.
There are cool new things about this one, but also other things I wasn't so wild about. Mind you, I also think the Columbus films are underrated.
What's admirable about it is its imagination, its freedom and the way it's willing to reinvent the story and the world. Cuaron was full of ideas, some of which Rowling vetoed (e.g. tiny people inhabiting Hogwarts) and others she approved wholeheartedly and wished she'd thought of herself (e.g. the shrunken heads). The dementors are horrific. This is a darker, stranger world. The school's geography is clearer. The Hogwarts students suddenly feel like real students, with a fundamental costume rethink and scenes like the one where the boys are goofing around with magical animal impersonations. That's not to say that Columbus's Hogwarts had felt fake to me, because it hadn't, but it had had a "jolly hockey sticks" feel with one foot in 1950s boarding school fiction. This is more immediate and tangible.
It's more artistic. It's eerier and less reassuring. The ghosts are no longer Disney-fied, Trelawney's possession is disturbing and our introduction to Hagrid makes his size look monstrous. Tomoko wasn't keen on Cuaron's round wipes, but that's her personal taste. She doesn't like Lucas's wipes in Star Wars either.
The boys also look a lot older. Felton's so changed that I needed a second look to confirm that it was really him.
The acting's better too. Coltrane is suddenly doing exactly what I'd wanted from him, although in fairness this time he's being given meatier material. Almost everyone's solid and I wasn't getting the acting niggles I've had with Columbus's films. Admittedly I'm not wild about Emma Thompson's Trelawney, but it's an unobjectionable take on the character and sometimes she's funny. (She's acting in a bubble, with very little connection to her dialogue or to the people around her, but that's Trelawney for you.)
Even Radcliffe's starting to find his feet. I don't yet think he's good, but for the first time he's showing himself capable of owning his scenes instead of merely being present in them. (That's not trivial. Natalie Portman didn't manage it in Star Wars, for instance.) There's a lot of anger in this film's Harry, sometimes suppressed (with his deceptively passive responses when frustrated) and sometimes not (with the Dursleys). Look at that kick in his bedroom. Radcliffe's finding fire we hadn't seen before. Look also at his arrogance to Snape in the corridors at night, with an almost nasty tone that could be argued to hark back to his bullying father (sadly removed from the film).
I still wouldn't call Radcliffe compelling in his bread-and-butter scenes, but he's made it up to "okay" and he's now capable of taking it up a level when required. That's a big deal. He's still not perfect (e.g. "he was their friend"), but I'm impressed with his progress, in a role that would daunt even an adult actor.
Oh, and the CGI's not always perfect (the Whomping Willow attack), but I'm full of admiration for Buckbeak. The motion of his avian musculature, the utter reality with which he's been realised... I can't imagine a better hippogriff. It took almost a year and a team of twenty to build three versions of him.
So, what didn't I like?
Firstly, I miss the sprawling nature of the earlier adaptations. I realise that that made for shaggier storytelling, but there's more to fiction than plot efficiency. The earlier films gave me a better sense of the breadth of Harry's world and of, say, the passing of the seasons. Here, it's a surprise to learn late in the film that it's already the summer term.
As a result, I also think the film's weaker than it could be thematically. They've cut almost everything about the marauders, including the fact that Harry's father was a bit of a bully. There are still strong connections being drawn between Harry and his father (that Snape scene I mentioned and obviously the final patronus), but we've clearly lost something compared with the book. Similarly, the dementors being a metaphor for depression has fallen through a trapdoor. Look for it all you like. It ain't there. Here, they're just spooky monsters.
Lupin's condition is interesting, though. You could see it as a metaphor for AIDS, which was Rowling's intention and is reflected in the unusual and interesting SPOILER design. That's one of my favourite cinematic realisations of that particular idea, in fact. (He's thin and nearly hairless. He looks ill.) Alternatively, you could also see it as a metaphor for homosexuality, which Cuaron saw in it and in fairness could be read into the film's Sirius-Lupin relationship (e.g. "old married couple"), although it's harder to sustain that reading in the context of the other films/books. Perhaps the most explosive reading (he says mischievously) would be as a former paedophile, which would fit almost disturbingly well if it weren't for the difficulties raised by Lupin being such a sympathetic character.
Random observation: it's starting to look as if the Harry Potter series as a whole has a minor theme of "keeping important information secret from others".
Plot question: why execute a pumpkin? Is that explained in the book?
Favourite anecdote: Cuaron had an idea of rain turning to ice at the dementors' approach, but his Spanish accent made the visual effects team hear "ice" as "eyes". They drew up a storyboard of eyes falling from the sky.
The World Is Cruel: Richard Attenborough lobbied to be Harris's replacement as Dumbledore. Of course all right-thinking people respect the mighty Gambon, but can you imagine more delicious casting than Attenborough? I'd have killed to see that. Admittedly he's a bit short, but no one would have cared about that after the first five seconds.
This is an excellent film. Cuaron's vision has clearly made an important and palpable difference to the series, but personally I don't see an unbridgeable gulf between his film and those of Columbus, Newell and Yates. It's more Harry Potter. I love Harry Potter. I miss the charm, even if this film has clearly taken the franchise down some interesting roads. (The same's also true of the books as the series goes on, so Cuaron was clearly the right man at the right time.) Besides, this film's clearer focus doesn't mean that it isn't still full of imagination and embroidery, in addition to the big, obvious reasons to love it. I'm a fan of David Thewlis and his endearing ugliness. No film can go wrong by bringing in Gary Oldman. Rickman's getting more screen time. These are all splendid things.
Even people who don't like Harry Potter admire this film. If it gets more people watching Cuaron's other movies, then that's worthwhile in itself.