Plot: After he used his magic skills to get some payback on a rude relative, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) expects to be punished by his Hogwart’s instructors, but finds himself let off the hook. But this bit of good news is tempered by some severe bad news, as Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from Azkaban prison and plans to hunt down Harry, to appease the Dark Lord. This situation has forced Hogwart’s to take drastic security measures and that includes the presence of Dementors, mystical, ominous creatures who now guard the grounds. As if the stress of Sirius on the loose isn’t enough, Harry has a strange reaction when close to the Dementors, which puts him in an even higher state of alert. Will the extra precautions at Hogwart’s keep Harry safe or will Sirius be able to find him after all?
Entertainment Value: After the exposition laden Sorcerer’s Stone and runway building of Chamber of Secrets, I was ready for the Harry Potter series to take flight and in The Prisoner of Azkaban, it does just that. This is where all that exposition stars to yield results and we see some character development in Harry, as well as a clearer look at where the franchise is headed. The movie still has a silliness at times, but also knows when to bear down and focus on a more serious narrative, as Harry barrels toward a confrontation with his past. This is still a family friendly movie of course, so it never gets dark, just more serious, but that shift in tone is most welcome, after two mostly comedic films to reach this point. A lot of lore was established in the first two pictures, so I was glad to see some of it put into motion here, even if the series is unable to reveal much of the larger puzzle. So the narrative is a big step in the right direction, the cast is great as usual, and the production values are excellent overall, but as with previous movies, the visual effects are not up to snuff. This isn’t a deal breaker, as a lot of big studio CGI is low tier, but given the emphasis on the mystical, magical elements involved, the awful CGI is kind of an immersion issue. Even so, this is a rock solid sequel that even improves upon the earlier films, though that is thanks in large part to the exposition foundation those movies put down.
The series continues to boast an incredible lineup of talent, both in returning stars and new faces. Daniel Radcliffe seems more comfortable in the role and just in time, since the material starts to ask a little more of him at this point. I still think he tends to be in the lower end of performances, but given the remarkable ensembles involved, that isn’t exactly an insult. Emma Watson also continued to come into her own as a performer here, though Rupert Grint remains a mediocre presence, perhaps due to the lesser material he was given, as usual. Alan Rickman steals the show at times as Snape of course, while Maggie Smith, Warwick Davis, Michael Gambon, Robbie Coltrane, and David Bradley all turn in terrific work. The sheer scale of the cast is beyond impressive, but everyone also shows up to put their talent to use, so even when the script sags, the cast is able to keep things balanced. Emma Thompson and David Thewlis are here in standout roles as well, while Gary Oldman is excellent as Sirius Black and really makes the most of his scenes. In short, you simply couldn’t ask for a much richer depth of talent, as this ensemble is stacked from top to bottom.