Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The opening shot of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban shows the hero in his darkened bedroom, and plenty of movement among the blankets. Said one adult viewer, "It give new meaning to the phrase, ‘playing with his wand under the covers.’ "

The crack isn’t of out order, particularly since Alfonso Cuaron directed the latest film installment of the series based on J.K. Rowling’s publishing sensations. Best known in the United States for the shamelessly sexy Y Tu Mama Tambien, Cuaron – who also directed 1995’s child-friendly A Little Princess – brings a greater sensibility to his topic than did his predecessor Chris Columbus in the two previous Harry Potter movies.

That’s not to say there aren’t effects spectacular enough to please the tech junkies who are likely to enjoy the movie as much as countless kids and their parents. The movie is packed with brilliant effects from start to finish. Things begin whimsically, when Harry’s nasty Aunt Marge blows up into a huge balloon that floats away. Later, among the scarier, and most effective images are the magnificently rendered Dementors, the ghost-like prison guards that haunt Harry a little more than this cohorts, Ron and Hermione.

Harry’s got good reason to be frightened, though. The creepy Dementors are associated with the prison from which Harry’s new enemy, Sirius Black, has escaped. Harry soon finds out that Black is on a mission to kill him. The introduction of Black (Gary Oldman) adds a refreshing dimension to the story, too, adding another reason why this new film far outshines the others in the series.

Still, the most lovingly devised effect is the half-horse, half-eagle Buckbeak, a magical creature with whom Harry develops a special bond. The fantastic animal looks great and casts a spell that will enthrall even the few folks who are familiar with Harry and his exploits through the movies and not the books.

Like his predecessor, Cuaron and screenwriter Steve Kloves stick closely to Rowling’s beloved text. But while Columbus sucked the spirit out of it with slavish adherence and reliance on tricks and effects, Cuaron succeeds with a more expansive approach. Harry and his pals travel outside the confines of Hogwarts, and some of the most thrilling scenes occur in real, honest-to-goodness nature.

Cuaron also elicits improved performances from his young actors, who nicely have grown into their 13-year-old characters, now in their third year of wizard’s school. Not only do the kids refrain from mugging for the camera, as they did mercilessly in the first film, they’re also beginning to display the most typical of adolescent traits: sassiness combined with a sizable dose of insecurity.

The filmmaking powers that be ought to get cracking on the next movie, before Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint get too old to believably reprise their roles as Harry, Hermione and Ron. Some esteemed British actors join the fun, with nary more than a cameo. Still, it’s amusing to check out the likes of Oldman, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Fiona Shaw, Michael Gambon, David Thewlis and Richard Griffiths. Best of all is an almost unrecognizable Emma Thompson, who does a hilarious turn as a Hogwarts instructor who reads crystal balls and tea leaves.

Indeed, the future looks sparkling for the Harry Potter film franchise, if decisions like the ones made in Azkaban carry forward in the movies inevitably on the way.

– Leslie Katz

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - Hogwarts Year 3