Shepherded by hack auteur Chris Columbus (Mrs. Doubtfire, Stepmom), whose commercial instincts border on diabolical, the first two Harry Potter movies were all about delivering on the franchise. They weren't adaptations so much as pop-up novelizations, faithfully rendering J.K. Rowling's popular books without a surfeit of personality or imagination. So when it was announced that the third installment in the series was to be handed over to Alfonso Cuarón, the superb Mexican director of Y Tu Mamá También and A Little Princess, there was reason for cautious optimism. With so much at stake, would Cuarón infuse the material with his own vision, or would he be hamstrung by expectations, the stand-in conductor of a runaway train?
Miraculously, Cuarón does a little bit of both in Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, which keeps the Potter universe intact while wresting it out of kiddie-land, introducing a sophisticated style that's simultaneously darker and more whimsical than the previous films. With shades of Carrie, Harry's magical powers and adolescent angst make a combustible fusion, taking on frightening, vengeful implications that Cuarón honors by refusing to airbrush the shadowy regions of fantasy. But because he remains wedded to the source material, the film represents a collection of minor improvements—in the acting, in the fleet storytelling, in the graceful integration of special effects—rather than a thorough overhaul.
Returning for his third year at Hogwart's School Of Witchcraft, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) learns that a convicted murderer (Gary Oldman) has escaped the wizard prison Azkaban and intends to kill him, for mysterious and convoluted reasons related to Harry's past. A flock of wraithlike, soul-sucking prison guards called Dementors surround Hogwart's perimeter in search of the escapee, but they may be more trouble than they're worth. Fortunately for Harry and his friends, there's a new "defense against the dark arts" teacher (David Thewlis) to help them combat these and other evil forces.
As usual, Rowling's busy plotting recalls Groucho Marx looking at a Treasury Department report in Duck Soup: "Why, a 4-year-old child could understand this report! Run out and find me a 4-year-old child. I can't make head or tail of it." The third act, especially, is overstuffed with so many twists and shifting alliances that it's hard to sort out the good guys and bad guys, but even then, the series takes an admirable leap into the folds of time. From the start, The Prisoner Of Azkaban taps into the neato fantasies that have inspired the Potter cult, but it never overemphasizes them, and it relegates many bits of magic to background noise. For the first time, the non-converted may actually see what all the fuss is about.