Azkaban contains both the longest denouement and the most rousing finish of any of the books, and Cuarón wisely whips through the 'ah-hahs' so that the clever climax, complete with the series' best SFX, can enjoy its moment in the moonlight.
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Although Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban stands well enough on its own, it has a "middle chapter" feeling. In other words, there's no real beginning or ending. Little is resolved and the film's climax is low-key.
A mild upkick in pacing and texture can be credited to director Alfonso Cuarón (more Little Princess than Y Tu Mamá), who avoids Chris Columbus's mastodon-like setups and knows a bit more about whipping up atmospherics.
A deeper, darker, visually arresting and more emotionally satisfying adaptation of the J.K. Rowling literary phenomenon, achieving the neat trick of remaining faithful to the spirit of the book while at the same time being true to its cinematic self.
Shot in spooky gradations of silver and shadow, The Prisoner of Azkaban is the first movie in the series with fear and wonder in its bones, and genuine fun, too.
Not only is this dazzler by far the best and most thrilling of the three Harry Potter movies to date, it's a film that can stand on its own even if you never heard of author J.K. Rowling and her young wizard hero.
Enjoy the savory witches' brew that Cuaron has cooked up in his Harry pot. For on its own terms, this one is truly wizard.
With shades of Carrie, Harry's magical powers and adolescent angst make a combustible fusion, taking on frightening, vengeful implications that Cuarón honors by refusing to airbrush the shadowy regions of fantasy.