Unlike other film series, “Harry Potter” just gets better. The hugely popular Warner Bros. movies of J.K. Rowling’s best-selling fantasies have become darker, richer and funnier over a period of three and a half years.
The third episode, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” is the most satisfying to date. At 145 minutes, it is also the shortest. A new director, 42-year-old Alfonso Cuaron, brings a fresh sense of whimsy to the material, as well as a seemingly easy knack for visual poetry that was rarely present in the first two films.
Especially during its final third, as Steven Kloves’ script starts playing around with the paradoxes of time travel and the mystery of déjà vu, Cuaron’s movie breaks away from the earlier films and establishes its own magical vision.
The first installment, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001), was a little stodgy, too tied to the book for its own good. No. 2, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002), was freed from establishing Rowling’s large cast of characters, and it had a breezier quality. Both were directed by Chris Columbus, who takes only a co-producer credit on “Azkaban.”
Cuaron, who is best-known for creating the sexually explicit Mexican hit, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001), may seem an odd choice for the PG-rated No. 3. But his memorable first American film, “A Little Princess” (1995), was a similar rites-of-passage story about an apparently fatherless child who is treated badly by adults. It’s a theme with which Cuaron clearly connects.
“Azkaban” opens with Harry the 13-year-old boy wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) being tormented by the vile Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris), who insults his dead parents (“bad blood will out”) and announces that she’d like to send him to an orphanage. Although he’s forbidden to use magic at home, Harry can’t abide the verbal abuse. He punishes Marge by transforming her into a helium-like balloon that escapes into the sky.
Harry tries to run away and gets a mild reprimand before returning to Hogwarts, the wizards’ school, which has been invaded by the Dementors, a gang of guards who suck the souls out of their victims. They appear to have a special power over Harry, who also seems to be the target of a wizard (Gary Oldman) who has escaped from Azkaban prison.
So far, so silly. If your eyes glaze over at “Harry Potter” plot descriptions, you’re far from alone. What makes the movies fun — especially this installment — are those elements that have little to with the plot: endearingly eccentric performances from the British actors (Oldman, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, Julie Christie and David Thewlis have joined the cast), and those soaring moments when the magic works (Harry’s ride on a very special triple-decker bus, a spectacular showdown with his own worst fears, his taming of a creature that’s half-horse, half-eagle).
Radcliffe continues to grow into his role, as do Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, who play Harry’s pals Hermione and Ron. Cuaron confidently takes them to the brink of teenhood with this episode. As a team, they’ve never been more persuasive.