Stars: *** 1/2
Rating: PG (but should be PG-13) for violence, intense scares, adult situations
Run Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Fans of J.K. Rowling and her rousing fantasy series rejoice. Courtesy of edgy director Alfonso Cuarón (A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien) you’re finally getting a movie worthy of your passion.
Cuarón knows his way around the dark edges of a psyche, and Harry Potter’s (Daniel Radcliffe) is ripe for the picking as he hurtles his way into the unfettered energy of his burgeoning adolescence.
Comfortably ensconced back at Hogwarts after a miserable summer at the home of the dysfunctional Dursleys, Harry dives headfirst into the obligations of his third year. There’s a grab-bag of magical mischief to be had and new professors to endure, including mysterious Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who schools Harry in a plot-crucial Patronus Charm, and loony-moony Divination Professor Sibyll Trelawney (Emma Thompson) who maintains an eerie prescience of Harry’s future.
Despite the talismanic shenanigans, a pall of impending doom fills the air. Menacing wizard Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who may have been instrumental in the death of Harry’s parents, has escaped from Azkaban prison and is allegedly searching for the young master.
With the sinister and skeletal Dementors standing sentry at the gates of Hogwarts (poised to suck the joyful soul from their enemies), an enchanted Marauder’s Map to decipher and a Quidditch championship to defend, the ultimate teen wizard has got a lot on his mystical mind.
The beauty of Potter’s third installment lies in the attention to detail. The lyrical perfection of the half-horse, half-eagle Hippogriff lifting Harry onto his back and into the skies with breathtaking finesse. Subtle matters of the heart involving Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). A rogue’s gallery of mischievous portraitures.
The undercurrent of malevolence flourishes courtesy of Cuarón’s cinematic black heart, but the director sidesteps the pitfalls of patent good vs. evil by drafting his characters and their actions in shades of moral gray.
Lengthy narrative overflows with powerhouse moments, among them a drop-dead confrontation between enigmatics Thewlis and Oldman -- two of our generation’s finest and most outrageous talents. A nasty climactic encounter with the dreaded Dementors renders this PG-rated fiction pure 13-plus material.
Cuarón has fashioned Rowling’s imaginative text into a visually and emotionally satisfying stunner. Third time’s the charm, indeed.