The previous films never received failing grades, being well-cast financial hits arguably too faithful to J.K. Rowling's supernaturally successful books. But under director Christopher Columbus, both Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets felt more driven by computer razzle-dazzle than narrative urgency or emotional insight.
Cuaròn approaches the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, as a kind of foreign exchange student, since the Mexican director found his greatest acclaim for the melancholy eroticism of Y Tu Mamá Tambien. But he proves a quick study and oversees a more rich and textured Harry Potter film than we've seen before. Azkaban's moody charms and psychological smarts earn at least a B+.
Student wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) enters his third year at Hogwarts as a shadow falls over the castle campus. Deranged criminal Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from Azkaban, the high-security prison of the magical world. Black may harbor a grudge that harks back to the murders of Harry's parents, so Hogwarts reluctantly plays host to Azkaban's indiscriminately monstrous guards, the Dementors. The ghostly creatures look like tattered Tolkien Ringwraiths and leech happy thoughts from their victims. "I felt weird, like I'd never be cheerful again," breathes Harry's sidekick Ron (Rupert Grint) after running afoul of one.
Azkaban intriguingly weaves ideas about emotions into the script's episodic sequence of magic classes and mysterious events. Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) instructs Harry to focus on powerful, pleasant memories if attacked by a soul-sucking Dementor. In another lesson, students are instructed to imagine something comical to counteract the powers of a creature that takes the shape of their greatest fears: One student, who is most fearful of strict Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), envisions the teacher in drag.
Kids and grown-ups alike can appreciate Azkaban's themes of accentuating the positive, whether confronting literal monsters or inner demons. Harry also repeatedly honors the memories of his late parents, giving the once-reserved Radcliffe more opportunities to tap into the role's adolescent frustrations and justifiable rage at the secrets surrounding his parents' death.
As Black, Oldman screams maniacally on a mystic "Wanted" poster, which recurs like a silent video loop, but he gets little dialogue until the film's end. Of Azkaban's new faculty members, Emma Thompson hilariously portrays a tea leaf-reading divination professor as a spacey, myopic hippie. Michael Gambon steps into the role of headmaster Dumbledore and proves more hale and mischievous than the late Richard Harris.
Thewlis' tweedy but kindly Lupin fills the mentor role here, and his scenes with Radcliffe give the film its heart. Even if you haven't read the book, you might suspect their bonding won't last long: In Rowling's realm, the position of Defense Against Dark Arts professor is about as ill-fated as being a drummer for Spinal Tap. Thewlis evokes the kind of beloved teacher who treats his charges with respect, not condescension.
Azkaban's relationships feel more grounded than the previous films, just as the spooky settings appear more dirty and lived in, closer to real places than movie sets. The director brings a similar conviction to the visual effects. We believe in Buckbeak, the half-horse, half-eagle hippogriff, as much from the nervous reactions of the surrounding characters as from the impeccably detailed computer imagery.
Cuaròn doesn't bring a comparable grace to the film's big magic sight gags, like Harry's mean aunt inflating like a blimp, or a triple-decker bus whizzing through the streets of London. Nor can he tighten Rowling's plot, which, just like the other films, feels both too complicated and overly drawn out. Yet Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban displays more vision and personality than Columbus' efforts, and proves the first film in the franchise to be genuinely enchanting.