High expectations coming into the third Potter movie, and Cuaron, thankfully, in my opinion, doesn't disappoint. People like to mention how unlikely a filmmaker he is for this material, considering he did the erotic road comedy Y Tu Mama Tambien; think of him more as the filmmaker who did the remarkable adaptation of Burnett's A Little Princess--Potter 3 has the same sparkling atmosphere and sense of mystery.
Well, maybe a little Y Tu Mama did seep through: the opening scene does have Harry in his Muggles room hiding under the bedsheets, playing with his magic wand and hoping his uncle doesn't find out.
Most of the film takes place in clouded days, with only an occasional ray of sun breaking through the gathered clouds. The effect is of a rather ominous light, bright but oppressive, almost painfully so, and not a little malignant. Columbus, in comparison, never thought to shoot in anything other than a bright blue sky--probably never entered his bright blue brain that more varied weather would have been more interesting...
The music score is still John Williams, but it's almost as if he grew a sense of taste overnight; we don't get the Potter theme repeated over and over again, ad nauseum; instead, the score is more eclectic and subdued, even jazzy.
The wonder of the special effects is that in Cuaron's hands, they aren't all that special; they're seen offhand, caught almost by accident, and no more attention is paid to them than to any other element in the film or image. Contrast this to the way Columbus would almost always put CGI effects front and center, probably with the absurd reasoning that if it costs so much money audiences will want to see as much of it, in blandly bright lighting, as possible.
The Quidditch game--something I've never been a fan of in the movies--is blessedly truncated, and shot (as is most of the film) in interestingly inclement weather. The cliche CGI shot--that of the camera following the Quidditch player from behind, as if in an amusement park ride--is (thank god in the highest!) absent; instead we have long shots of the players flying about, which I would imagine is the way a filmmaker really would try to film a game where people flit around hundreds of feet in the air...
Most of all, there's real poetry in the movie's images--the hand against the quickly frosting windowpane; the passage of the Dementor amongst withering flowers; the hippogriff's wing dipping into the lake water; the use of the Whomping Willow as a motif to indicate time's passage--leaves shed in autumn, snow mantle shaken off in spring, a heave of its heavy shoulders to indicate boredom.
The magical creatures, both animal and vegetable, generally show more distinct personalities--the scene where Potter approaches the hippogriff has real tension, mainly because Cuaron succeeds in making us believe that the CGI construct is a real animal, only half-tamed.
As for the characters...it's a bit of a shock to see Potter show real attitude, especially to his Muggle relatives (Radcliffe may fall a bit short, actingwise, but I didn't mind this so much); the rivalry between Hogwart students seem to have the bite and antagonism of emerging adolescents. Much of this comes from the book, I suppose. Michael Gambon is a more energetic, even crafty Dumbledore--I feel as if this is the first time I've seen the character awake, much less with a working brain. The humor is more understated--less slapstick, more actual wit.
The film ends inconclusively, and I hear huge swathes of detail have been removed from the book en route to the big screen, but for me that's a minor quibble. I wouldn't have cared if the film print had snapped--it's the feel of the ride that matters.
Easily the best of the Potter movies to date (probably the best ever--Mike Newell, the hack that did Four Weddings and a Funeral directs the next one), and the first to exhibit any real magic. I actually prefer this to the supersized hobbit movies--it's relatively shorter (a mere two and a half hours), it shows a budding awareness of the opposite sex, and it contains genuine lyricism, a feel for genuine enchantment.