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Review: 'Azkaban' top of the Potters

New film has magical sweep, magnetic performances

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Harry Potter
Hermione (Emma Watson), Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Ron (Rupert Grint) are back in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."
Daniel Radcliffe
J.K. Rowling

(CNN) -- I'm just wild about Harry.

"Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban," the third in the series of movie adaptations of J.K. Rowling's wildly successful Harry Potter books, is an utter delight.

"Azkaban" leaps into a much darker universe while still retaining all the mystery, magic and charm of the first two movies. This is due, in large part, to the presence of a new creative force in the director's chair, Alfonso Cuaron.

Chris Columbus, who directed parts one and two of the series, has stepped down -- while remaining one of the producers -- to let Cuaron (who was approved by Rowling) add his voice to the Potter films. Cuaron, best known for his award-winning film "Y Tu Mama Tambien," makes wonderful fluid use of the camera, darting through clocks and mirrors, as he guides his characters from childhood into their more serious teenage years.

The story begins with a bang when Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) -- once again spending his summer with his dismal relatives, the Dursleys -- loses his cool by blowing his obnoxious Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) up into a balloon, after she harasses him one too many times.

Fearing reprisal from the Dursleys and the Ministry of Magic, Harry runs away from home only to be picked up by the magical Knight Bus, a rollicking triple-decker vehicle which whisks him away to the Leaky Cauldron pub. There he is met by the Minister of Magic.

Much to Harry's surprise and relief, he isn't punished for practicing magic out of school. Instead the Minister is just happy he's safe and sends him off to his third year at Hogwarts. On the way there, he meets up with his good friends, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint).

Sirius -- and dangerous

It appears that bigger things are afoot than a little mal-practice of magic. A dangerous wizard, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), has escaped from Azkaban prison, something no one has ever been able to do before, and he's believed to be on his way to Hogwarts.

Black is thought to be responsible for leading Lord Voldemort to Harry's parents, and therefore to their ultimate deaths. Now it is feared that he's set his designs on Harry.

Harry Potter
Sirius Black, played by Gary Oldman, has escaped from Azkaban prison in new Potter film.

Seeking to find Black are the Dementors, a group of terrifying Azkaban guards now surrounding Hogwarts. The Dementors suck the soul from their victims and seem especially attracted to Harry, while at the same time they're supposed to be protecting him and the other students from Black.

Coming to Harry's rescue is a new character, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) whose specialty is Defense Against Dark Arts -- as Potter readers know, a fateful position to have. Lupin teaches Harry how to use the a special charm to shield himself from the Dementors.

Other new additions to the cast include Divination Professor Sibyl Trelawney, played with great gusto by Emma Thompson, and a divine creature called Buckbeak, a hippogriff -- half horse, half eagle -- introduced into the story by the giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane).

After many adventures, including the mysterious appearances and disappearances of Hermione, Harry is finally confronted by the evil wizard -- Sirius Black himself.

Aging well

Harry Potter
The latest Harry is 13 years old and finding confidence within himself.

As always, it is impossible to take your eyes off Oldman whenever he's on screen. Black is a major character in the Harry Potter saga, and Oldman -- haunted, unkempt, weirdly magnetic -- brings a wonderful complexity to the role.

As for the three main characters, they are all maturing well, with no signs of those sometimes awkward teenage phases many of us know so well. They're also starring in the next installment, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." That film is currently in production and will be helmed by yet another director, Mike Newell. It's set to be released in 2005.

It's safe to say that the mythology of Harry Potter is creating one of the most successful film franchises in Hollywood history, and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" is a top-notch entry. Indeed, if they're all this good, I'd be happy to see a Harry Potter movie come out every year until he's collecting retirement.

"Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban" opens nationwide on Friday, June 4, and is rated PG. The movie is from Warner Bros., a division of Time Warner, as is CNN.

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