Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third installment of what will eventually be a seven-book series, is somewhat of a teenager unto itself. As familiarity inevitably begins to set in, the mere existence a magical community is no longer enough to sustain Harry emotionally, nor is the sparkling façade of Chris Columbus' Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets enough to satisfy audiences. Consequently, a then-43-year-old Alfonso Cuarón was faced with one of the key challenges of early adolescence in agreeing to direct the film -- establishing an identity and channeling the seedling stages of angst into productivity. Thankfully, Cuarón clearly remembers what it's like to be 13. From raging hormones and expanding egos to crippling self-doubt and hope despite it, the hallmarks of youth are apparent in virtually every frame of Prisoner of Azkaban. The actors, of course, play no small role: Daniel Radcliffe has improved exponentially, while Rupert Grint continues to exhibit an impressive knack for comic timing. Emma Watson is perfect as Hermione; similar to Michael Gambon's portrayal of Dumbledore, Watson emanates wit and power, and, in staying with her character, communicates a sense of harried urgency in everything she does. The veteran British actors making up the Hogwarts staff are equally impressive. Emma Thompson, in particular, is delightfully batty as the boy-who-cried-Grim divination teacher, while Alan Rickman's Professor Snape is as unfathomable and complicated as ever. Though David Thewlis offers a solid performance as the haunted Professor Lupin, Gary Oldman is perhaps the most notable newcomer to the film series. With little time to spare, Oldman manages to express the tragic but unerringly loyal nature of Sirius Black.
The nature of the soul and the life-altering effects of circumstance and choice are the two key elements of Prisoner of Azkaban, and Cuarón, to his credit, has helmed a production that is all soul. Even without the rich description of the book, the essence of the characters and the world they inhabit are more apparent than they have ever been, and the CGI fits into the "Potterverse" so seamlessly, it's easy to forget that Hippogriffs (a sort of half-eagle, half-horse) aren't part of the natural world. The only real fault in Cuarón's Azkaban, as devoted fans have duly noted, is the all-too-brief Shrieking Shack showdown, and the omission of Harry's final talk with Dumbledore. Besides depriving audiences of some well-needed history (why Snape hates Sirius enough to enjoy watching the soul sucked out of his body, the extent of the friendship between the Marauders, and the significance of the stag shape of Harry's Patronus, for instance), Dumbledore's explanation concerning the vast implications of the actions we take, and the life-debt Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall) now owes Harry because of a spontaneous decision, is not just an integral aspect to Prisoner, but to the series as a whole. Yet, even with a key scene conspicuously missing, this adaptation, more than its predecessors, gives an inkling into the tremendous success of the Harry Potter franchise, because Prisoner of Azkaban finally got what Harry is about -- magic, the bonds of friendship, and a whole lot of heart.