Seems ages ago--but it was less than 2 1/2 years--that folks were seriously debating whether The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter films would make the more enthralling adaptation of fantasy literature. That competition was over--declared a forfeit, really--as soon as the respective first installments appeared: the Gandalf wizard movie vanquished the Harry wizard movie in thrills and technical splendor, artistry and maturity. But in the values Hollywood understands, worldwide box-office income, the first two films from the J.K. Rowling books outperformed the first two Tolkien films, $1.84 billion to $1.78 billion. Reason enough to continue with the education of Harry Potter.
There's another reason. As the new Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban proves, these can be smart, enjoyable films if the stars are properly aligned. It helps that Azkaban has one of the strongest plots in the canon thus far. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), now 13 and in his third year at Hogwarts' School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is challenged by the escape of the notorious Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) from Azkaban, the Alcatraz of the wizardly world. With a new danger, a new protector: Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), a wise, kindly gent with the habit of disappearing every few weeks, then returning with unseemly scratches on his face. Aided by his school chums Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), Harry must discern protective friend from mortal foe at the risk of his life--and of learning astonishing things about himself.
For this third film, overseer Chris Columbus, who directed Sorcerer and the first sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, has handed the reins to Alfonso Cuaron, the Mexican director best known for the too-hot-for-an-R sex comedy Y Tu Mama Tambien. Cuaron, however, also made the English-language children's film A Little Princess, so he knows his way around precocious kid actors.
He caught his three young leads at the right time. Uncertain in their first films, they are comfortable with the camera now, and have grown into their roles as into their maturing bodies. That is appropriate, for this episode is a parable of puberty--of boys bursting into young manhood, when the sprouting of hair and the deepening of voices are exciting and threatening. No lad is fully prepared for this convulsive rite of passage, not even a Hogwarts wizard--of Harry's generation or the one before.
Just about everything plays better this time. The production team, headed by designer Stuart Craig, has stopped pausing to admire its handiwork and splashed splendid images on the screen at a brisk pace. Azkaban conjures up a purple triple-decker bus (it can instantly slim itself to pass between two vehicles), a Monster Book of Monsters (it snarls at Harry, then scoots under his bed) and Buckbeak the hippogriff (a wonderfully realistic creature with an unpredictable personality). And does it all without preening.