Ebert:1/2 Rolling Stone:1/2 TV Guide:

Warning, minor plot points revealed!

I went back and read my review for the last Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, before writing this one.  I remember really enjoying the last film and I wondered if this new movie would compare.   If I gave 1/2 star ratings then Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban would probably get 4 and 1/2 stars.  I don't think I liked it quite as much as the first two films of the series.  It is a great movie and I loved it, but there are distractions that I will go into in a moment.

Of course if you are a fan of the books then it goes without saying that you have seen the film at least once by now and no review is going to make any difference.  I have seen a split among other reviewers who all agree that the movie is excellent, but some say better and some say not quite as good as the last.  I will probably align with the latter crowd but I absolutely recommend the film as one of the highlights of the summer.  

The 3rd year at Hogwarts once again provides a new roster of teachers, a noticeably more multi-racial student body, and of course the peril of death for Harry and his friends.  The story this time is more singularly focused than in the past.  It deals pretty much exclusively with the escape of Sirius Black from Azkaban Prison.  He was imprisoned as an accomplice to Voldemort's murder of Harry's parents, and has now escaped presumably to finish the job by killing Harry.  The school is surrounded by soul sucking Dementors, guards of Azkaban, that look almost exactly like the Lord of the Rings ring wraiths and await Sirius.  Other sub plots that are interconnected to the main story include werewolf attacks on the school grounds and a half bird, half horse hippogriff named Buckbeak.

The special effects of the film are first rate.  Films can finally do anything that can be imagined with little or no incredulity that the effects will look perfectly believable.  The Potter franchise is a resounding success so no expense is spared.  The school itself is a fascinating mish mash of constantly shifting stairs, paintings in perpetual motion and trees that will not suffer a low flying bluebird.  

There's a neato-fun bus trip at the beginning of the film as well as a Wonka-type spell cast by Harry at the onset during the inevitable scene at home with the family.

The Quiddich match was played in especially foul weather this time which may have offered a new interesting twist but since the game had little to do with the story it was cut shorter than in the previous films.  

The hippogriff Buckbeak was just as believable as the giant spider and basilisk in the last film.  It's amazing how these creatures are brought to life so expertly that it is easy to accept them immediately.  

One problem I had with the film was that the children of the cast are aging faster than the characters they play.  They are made to appear younger but this represents the only poor and unintentional special effect of the film.  The older twin Weasley brothers look like they should be at Hogwarts University by now.  Rupert Grint who plays Harry's friend Ron Weasley has had a serious growth spurt that has affected both his appearance and voice.  Hermione Granger, played by Emma Watson, is also growing up too fast.  Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) still looks almost exactly the same but his deep voice betrays his youthful facade.   And finally, much to my dismay, my favorite student Draco Malfoy has aged more than any of the other children and for some reason, his character has become less menacing and more of a sniveling cowardly crybaby.  I hope he is restored to his old sinister self in the next installment.

The only other issue was that unlike the last two films this tale was very intent on the Sirius Black story.  In the last two films there has always been a primary story line but it was always enhanced by a series of side-adventures.  I remember thinking that both the first and second films were each kind of like three little movies rolled into one.  I suppose this film had it's tangents as well but they were less defined.

The casting of the Harry Potter films is becoming a who's who of British thespians.   Gary Oldman joins the cast as the treacherous Sirius BlackDavid Thewlis as Professor Lupin replaces Kenneth Branagh's marvelous Gilderoy Lockhart for this year's Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts.  Former Mrs. Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, joins the cast in a nearly unrecognizable turn as Professor Sybil Trelawney.  Michael Gambon takes on the role of the late Richard Harris as Headmaster Albus Dumbledore.  Alan Rickman returns with a larger role this time as my favorite teacher Professor Severus Snape.  Maggie Smith is back in an abbreviated role as Professor Minerva McGonagall.  And, Robbie Coltrane steps back into the giant shoes of Rubeus Hagrid.  

Director Chris Columbus has passed the torch to Alfonso Cuaron who has kept the world of Potter in tact but has tinted it a few shades darker.  This is a definite plus.  In fact, I believe some of the scenes with the Dementors may be too intense for really little kids.  As the characters age so do their fans so I think it is fine to send the films on a shadowy path.  Hogwarts has always been a perilous environment anyway.  In fact, I'm surprised that a number of students aren't injured and/or killed each semester.  

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban follows the series on it's proper evolution.  It is a great film and I highly recommend it.  I know the 4th film of the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is already in production with a 2005 release date, so we will have to see if the current actors can remain child-like for at least one more term at Hogwarts.