Magic wands and mythical creatures, giants and werewolves, ancient curses and silly hats, all mixed up with a good dose of teenage angst - it can only be the third Harry Potter film.
Fuelled by an enthusiastic new director (Alfonso Cuaron of Y Tu Mama Tambien fame) and the injection of new talent into the cast list (Gary Oldman and Emma Thompson to name just two), J.K. Rowling's third book has come to vivid life in what is undoubtedly the best of the "Potter" films made so far.
This time our young hero finds himself pursued by the infamous Sirius Black - an insane killer who betrayed Harry's parents. Black has escaped from the wizard prison of Azkaban and its nightmarish guards - the soul sucking dementors - are sent to Hogwarts School to guard Harry and recapture Black.
Swamped by homework, Quidditch practice and a whole set of tricky new subjects - Harry must still find time to solve many puzzles: Why does Black want him dead? Why do dementors affect him more than others? And what relationship does the mysterious new teacher, Professor Lupin, have to Harry's past?
Though shorter than the two previous films, the third instalment is by far the most well rounded piece of cinema. Cuaron, aided by the well measured screenplay, has struck a delicate balance between the maintaining both the pace of the plot and the delicious details, that make J.K. Rowling's books such a delight.
Cuaron is also willing to linger over an important scene, flesh out the characters and build tension gradually - things which the detail crazed Chris Columbus seemed incapable of getting right. The younger actors come to life in Cuaron's hands, while the older actors are spurred to push beyond mere caricatures.
The special effects, while less obviously spectacular than the first two films, are superb. Instead of becoming the focus of every scene, they blend seamlessly with the action - forming such a coherent and believable whole that you often forget that they are there.
But perhaps the most impressive decision of the film was to retain all the darkness of the novel. Rather than glossing over the horror of Azkaban and its soul eating guards, the film positively revels in their creepiness. A word of warning though - the sight dementors brought vividly to life will definitely give most small children some serious nightmares.
The one great tragedy of the film is the miniscule screen time that many of the older actors are afforded. The magnetic Alan Rickman and the masterful Maggie Smith are reduced to cameo roles. The always convincing Gary Oldman gets barely more than five minutes of screen time. While this is, in large part, dictated by the plot it still hurts to see such powerful talents playing bit parts. One notable exception to this rule is the ever understated David Thewlis, who gives a subtle and heartfelt performance as Professor Lupin.
While Potter purists may shed a tear for the details that have inevitably fallen by the wayside the third film is considerably better than could be expected from a big budget special effects feast. Perhaps the best advice is just to sit back and lose yourself in the magical world brought to life before your eyes.
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