U.S. Release Date: June 4, 2004
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Writer: Steve Kloves
Producer: Chris Columbus, David Heyman
Composer: John Williams
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Warwick Davis
Running Time: 2 hours and 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG (frightening moments, creature violence and mild language)

Welcome Back, Potter
by Scott Holleran

The third installment in the motion picture series based on J.K. Rowling's children's literary phenomenon, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, succeeds in every sense. As a plot-based child's adventure, it is true to Rowling's novel and the adaptation is filled with a top-notch cast, with the three young leads growing up—and into their roles.

The story begins as Daniel Radcliffe's more mature Harry Potter asserts some measure of independence. Lightly mythical Harry Potter thinks, judges and chooses. After enduring a cruel family encounter, Harry Potter strikes out alone. He is both more confident, and he is more virtuous.

While being whisked away on a triple-decker bus, Harry Potter learns that the dreaded Sirius Black, the first prisoner ever to escape from the heavily guarded Azkaban, apparently seeks Potter's demise. Most of the movie means waiting for Black to make himself known. Azkaban's guards, frightful creatures known as Dementors, don't make matters easy.

The suspense takes Harry Potter to the familiar Hogwarts school. Returning to her proper place among the intrepid trio of kid wizards is intelligent Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), whose role in the last picture was disappointingly thin. Rupert Grint returns as Ron Weasley, delivering the movie's most humorous lines with his marvelous facial expressions.

Rivals, professors and friends are back, too, with Michael Gambon taking the role of Dumbledore over from the late Richard Harris. New characters—including David Thewlis as a fatherly instructor and a cryptic Gary Oldman—enhance the drama. Though it was probably bound to happen, the sense that Hogwarts is an institution of higher learning—with Dumbledore as its greatest thinker—is diminished.

Harry Potter movies are more like Saturday morning serials than grand epics. Azkaban is no exception. Director Alfonso Cuaron maintains the striking visual style of Chris Columbus' previous pictures (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and writer Steve Kloves delivers another good script. Except for small children, the picture is suitable for a family matinee.

A new creature, Buckbeak, is a wonderful surprise. Buckbeak's scenes are a lively integration of fantasy and reality, more intimate than wisecracking ogres or an army of elves. Those who created Buckbeak for the screen deserve the highest praise; his color, his movements and his interaction with actors provide the movie's deepest emotions.

The plot and British accents are occasionally hard to follow, partly due to the sound, which amplifies nature over dialog when words matter most. The story tends to drag, and the climax doesn't match the suspense of the first two movies. The mysteriously horrifying Dementors beg the question why a benevolent wizards' world would tolerate such malevolent guardians.

But this fantasy does not substitute incoherent speeches or potty humor for plot; its light mythology is the story of a boy facing the world with reason as his highest attribute. At its core, Harry Potter, like its literary source, is conceptual.

For today's child, principally for the youngster who reads and thinks, Harry Potter is an escape from the sensory-level assault on the mind. Setting a children's tale to the broad—and, in trying times, relevant—idea that joy is possible even in the darkest hours, Harry Potter is both happy and smart.

That Harry Potter is happy because he is smart makes his latest story—which is best judged as part of a progression—superior to Hollywood's usual nonsense. One is also left with the distinct impression that Harry Potter is the purpose of his own happiness, which puts Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban at the top of today's junk heap of kids' movies, as an antidote to mindlessness.

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