Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

dir. Cuaron

Opens Fri June 4

Various Theaters

First of all, how did the director of the super-hot hetero/homoerotic sex romp Y Tu Mamà Tambièn end up working the new Harry Potter pic? Though the producers' answers are standard press-junket fare--"works great with kids," "a visually exciting director"--the choice to bring Alfonso Cuaròn aboard the Potter juggernaut was a risky and inspired move. Happily for all, it paid off with the strongest installment yet.

The Prisoner of Azkaban starts with Harry Potter impatiently waiting for the magical Hogwarts School to start its fall session. However, Harry's anticipation is tempered by the news of an insane convict (Gary Oldman) who's escaped from prison with the intention of doing the young wizard serious harm. Adding to his troubles are some truly creepy prison guards (appropriately named "The Dementors"), a werewolf, and the regular cast of bullies and teachers whose sole intention seems to be making Potter's pubescence a difficult one. In this installment, the central tension isn't surviving the attack of a humongous snake, but rather learning to understand and accept his role in a dangerous future.

As in J.K. Rowling's celebrated books, the film version of The Prisoner of Azkaban is the middle chapter in the series--and plays that way. While it has action aplenty, the tone is slightly darker and wiser, taking time to explore Harry's coming of age. The humor is sharper than the first two, and the acting (especially from the children) shows maturity--however, they better hurry up with the rest of the series before Hermione bursts out of her training bra.

But it's the amount of detail and care Cuaròn places on every shot that differentiates this installment from the rest. Never has Hogwarts looked so realistic--but at the same time, ethereal. There are hundreds of tiny jokes and flourishes in the castle background, as if the director were saying, "I'm including something for the adults." No need to worry; The Prisoner of Azkaban has more than enough to keep most fidgety adults glued to the screen. Thanks to Cuaròn, this Harry Potter is the one the others will have to top.