Whatever else it may be, the Harry Potter edda is surely the most popular narrative about the dawning of pubertal awareness ever created, and in the third film of the onslaught, the short hairs are just beginning to dramatically sprout. This chapter opens with a fairly explicit tableau: Harry under his covers at night, doing something feverish and forbidden, as his Muggle stepfather repeatedly barges in to suppress the nastiness. As Aleister Crowley always said, sex is magic and vice versathat is why J.K. Rowling's apprentice sorcerers are so heavily regulated in their wand usage, and have their magical loins flexed harmlessly in sports, until such time as they can control their own transformative impulses. Certainly, spells successfully cast have an orgasmic ferocity, and a slide-show lesson on werewolves is performed by Snape (Alan Rickman) with the severity of a Catholic-school health class.
Even as hormonal chaos looms, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabanbased on the most beloved (at least by the HP readers I know) of Rowling's novelsis no rebel yell; the territory by now is familiar, well trod, and surprise-free. Daniel Radcliffe and his blossoming compatriots have accumulated a touch more confidence, the British Actors' Equity cast stride through their business in the Old Vic manner, and the digital effects whip up a glutinous tumult. For the new characters, the producers have this time consulted Mike Leigh's Rolodex, and so Gary Oldman dons the mantle of dark fugitive Sirius Black, David Thewlis gets the sizable shoes of new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Professor Lupin, and Timothy Spall guest-appears as the rodential Peter Pettigrew, all three of whom figure prominently in the unfolding backstory of what actually happened to Harry's parents.
There's something sweet and cozy about Rowling's insistence on time-worn legends and ideas (here, a hippogriff plays a pivotal role) rather than yet another not-so-original, Tolkienian cosmos. Volume three's narrative is thoroughly haunted by the Potters' murder and Harry's orphanhood, but because Radcliffe remains an utterly opaque pre-teen, the sturm und drang is expressed largely in the stormy CGI skies. A mild upkick in pacing and texture can be credited to director Alfonso Cuarón (more Little Princess than Y Tu Mamá), who avoids Chris Columbus's mastodon-like setups and knows a bit more about whipping up atmospherics, as with the first confrontation, aboard a train, with the prison-keeping, dark-angel Dementors.
An early dollop of dinner-table mayhem is deftly assembled, and there are a few jewels amid the nougat-centered gothica, as when the artworks in the Great Hall go berserk after a Sirius break-in and Cuarón layers in the image of a slowly loping giraffe passing through the foreground of several paintings at once. One's hope that the obligatory Quidditch match would be called on account of rain is soon dashed, but at least the geography of Hogwarts is granted a little spatial respect: By the end, you feel as if you know the place pretty well, and it's a lovely spot.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.