After a dreadful summer with his Muggle relatives, 13-year-old wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is ready to return to school and his magical compatriots. So ready that like any adolescent, he pitches a big fit -- the bizarre consequences of which any regular teen could only dream. A convenient Knight Bus whisks Harry away, but the future promises nothing but trouble: Harry learns that dangerous wizard Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from prison and is probably coming after him.
The story in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban takes a turn for the dark and morally murky, as it does in J.K. Rowling's eponymous third novel in the Harry Potter series, upon which this film is based. While the first two films, The Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets, were largely stand-alone features (Harry encounters a troubling puzzle and solves it), this third episode broadens the parallel world of witches and wizards and begins to establish the historical context for Harry's current situation and to lay the groundwork for the increasingly complex battles -- both physical and moral -- to come.
Hence Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mama También), who grabs the director's chair from Chris Columbus, is working from more complicated source material, and his direction suits it better than Columbus' literal depictions of the first two episodes. (Columbus remains on board as producer.) Cuarón finds the intrinsic menace in Harry's everyday magical world, including his school Hogwarts, which previously had seemed like a refuge. The camera snakes down the ill-lit corridors, through windows and heavy doors, and across curious staircases and bridges: Where once Hogwarts appeared magically fun, it is now dark, too large to be navigated, and hence capable of harboring evil.
The maturing Harry becomes burdened with knowledge, and his development as a wizard requires not just mastering tricky new spells, but also making tough decisions. Harry's quick to break the rules now -- some out of adolescent pique, but others to save his skin or even attempt to restore order to the whole wizarding world. That's a lot for an increasingly angry and confused lad to carry on his slim shoulders.
Aiding Harry are his two Hogwarts pals, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson). Their new defense against the dark-arts teacher Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) seems helpful, even if his nocturnal behavior is a bit mystifying. Shaggy giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, donning the long beard after Richard Harris' death) continue to prove worthy allies. Gloomy Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) still has in it for Harry ... or does he? Prisoner leaves plenty unresolved, but when one's mucking about with good and evil, that's to be expected, and after the literalness of Harry's previous adventures, even appreciated.