(PG) 4 starsEd Johnson-Ott

Well, the third Harry Potter film opened last Friday. It made a gazillion dollars and most critics loved it. We didn't review it, of course. We were invited to an advance screening only if we promised not to print any reviews until opening day. We growled and cursed and skipped the screening altogether, consoled only by the fact that other weekly publications in town were in the same boat. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Ron (Rupert Grint) gaze into a crystal ball in Divination class.

Ah, but they weren't. The Zoom kids over at Intake, The Star's Weekly Reader for kicky young adults, hit the streets with their Harry Potter review a day before it opened. So what happens now? Will the Weekly Reader be punished by the studio (and how would that work)? Will we ignore future requests to hold reviews, citing the defiance of the other paper (you can pretty much bet on that one)?

Will I ever stop digressing and just review the movie?


Though Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban drags in a couple of spots and feels rushed in one segment, I enjoyed it more than the first two in the series. The key here is director Alfonso Cuaron, whose film, Y Tu Mama Tambien, took a road trip with two young men and a slightly older woman and turned it into something rich, spirited, funny, sexy and poignant.

Gone in this Harry is the slavish "must-film-ever-storyline" mindset of Chris Columbus, director of the first two movies. Instead, Cuaron culls portions of the huge J.K. Rowling book for an adaptation that is more spirited, more kinetic.

The magic is still there, but the surroundings feel more grounded. The tone is darker, as in the book, but there is plenty of humor here. This Harry Potter feels like a real movie, as opposed to playing like an extraordinarily well-illustrated storybook.

Steven Kloves' screenplay begins with 13-year-old Harry (ably played by 15-year-old Daniel Radcliffe) suffering through another miserable summer with the Dursleys. The boy's temper reaches the breaking point when obnoxious visitor Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) starts mouthing off about his deceased mother and father. I won't tell you what he does. Suffice to say that the sky becomes a little more interesting that night.

Fearful of punishment, Harry runs away, but soon ends up at Hogwarts, courtesy of a mind-boggling bus ride. Disturbing news awaits: Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a wizard believed to have been involved in the death of Harry's parents, has escaped from Azkaban prison and may be heading to Hogwarts.

After a reunion with best pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), Harry begins preparing for the potential confrontation by training with Professor Lupin (Thewlis), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. There are other new faces at Hogwarts: Timothy Spall appears as an old friend of Professor Lupin, Emma Thompson has a ball as the very nearsighted seer, Professor of Divination Sibyll Trelawney, and, stepping in for the late Richard Harris, Michael Gambon does well as Albus Dumbledore.

Two of my favorite characters get plenty of screen time. Robbie Coltrane as the wildly hirsute Rubeus Hagrid remains devoted and lovable, especially in scenes with his pet, the bizarrely majestic Hippogriff. And I truly love the fact that Alan Rickman's Professor Severus Snape, though proven to be a good man, remains as surly as ever. Alas, the ghostly John Cleese is missing in action this time. Hope he'll be back for the next go-around.

Congratulations go to all the special effects folks and to John Williams for a score that nicely matches the tone. And to the producers of the series, let me add my voice to the chorus. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a fine piece of entertainment. You have a rarity: a series getting better as it ages. You also have three young actors - Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson - who are aging perfectly for their roles. Don't replace them for any of the final four movies.

Oh, and how about allowing writers at weekly publications to review the next Harry in a more timely fashion?