Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Running time: 136 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
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"The Lord of the Rings" trilogy has come and gone, but its fantasy film rival, the "Harry Potter" series, seems to be just hitting its stride with its third installment, "Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban." Director Alfonso Cuaron, known both for his sexy road movie "Y tu mama tambien" and his 1995 children's fable "The Little Princess," replaces Chris Columbus in the director's chair and faces that problem of all sequels: How to balance giving us more of what we expect and something new.

For the most part, he succeeds. Take the opening scene, the ritual sequence (continued from the first two films) in which Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), teen wizard, is berated and bullied by his muggle foster parents before being spirited off to Hogwarts school for aspiring sorcerers. This time, however, Harry's a little older and a lot more fed-up. He vents his rage by turning a particularly abusive auntie into a hot-air balloon. The ensuing row with his guardians suggests that we won't be seeing Harry back there for film No. 4 . . .

That scene signals a bit of a harder-edged Harry Potter, and sets the mood for the film. There's plenty of laughter and light in the film too, but trailing it is a sense of danger, a very real possibility of death that's far more ominous than anything in the earlier films. You can credit Cuaron for some of this -- he has a different touch in the lighting and atmosphere and framing of his scenes -- but it's also a reflection of the direction author J.K. Rowling has taken in the books, setting Harry on a crash course with his fear of death.