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 facade 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 Cuaron 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, Cuaron 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 Cuaron, 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 Cuaron'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. ~ Tracie Cooper, Rovi Coming off the most vivid and satisfying entry in the series, Alfonso Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the fourth installment can't help but seem a little disappointing. But that's not because Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has trouble keeping pace in the technical department, which might have been a concern given director Mike Newell's background in small-scale fare like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco. No, the problem is built into the book. As J.K. Rowling tipped the scales with a novel almost 300 pages longer than any previous, the film version can't help but suffer from a sprawling quality that detracts from its cohesiveness. The Tri-Wizard Tournament certainly showcases some of the most glorious Potter visuals yet -- a gladiator-style dragon battle and an underwater rescue mission (Harry sprouts fins!) chief among them. But as an exhibition involving students -- even in the wizard world -- it gives pause, having irresponsibly dire hazards built in for the participants, some of whom are totally unwitting. (Such dark elements prompted the series' first PG-13 rating.) There's also a major plot contrivance that never sits well, namely, that Harry's friends turn against him over an incident not dissimilar to numerous others in his Hogwart's history, involving him being thrust into school-wide prominence ahead of the development of his peers. Given Harry's extreme celebrity, this should be par for the course rather than cause for abandonment. Overall, when making quibbles about a Harry Potter movie, it's all relative, and The Goblet of Fire continues the series' fine tradition, its stars transitioning into their late teens without seeming overly awkward. It's only appropriate that the threats against them should become more adult, a trend that will only deepen as future novels hit the screen. ~ Derek Armstrong, Rovi Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is more enjoyable and better made than its predecessor. Paced well and effectively balancing thrills and laughs, Chamber feels much shorter than its intimidating 161 minute running time. The plot is occasionally fuzzy -- reasons are left unclear as to why the bad guys have to go through the complicated plan that they do, but complaining about that is the equivalent of quibbling with a Bond villain. Hogwarts looks more like a real place and less like a movie set this time around. The characters and sets have a familiarity that helps make this film feel more natural than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. The actors acquit themselves well, although only Kenneth Branagh as the vain, egotistical Gilderoy Lockhart truly shines. Branagh is obviously spoofing himself, and his joy is infectious. Although the film delivers the goods, disappointing neither fans of the books nor admirers of the first film, there is a certain restrictive feeling about the film that is hard to place. That Chris Columbus so closely follows the books seems to be a big reason why the series has succeeded (financially) as much as it has. However, there is an inevitability that disappoints ever so slightly. One has difficulty sensing much individuality in the film. Chamber of Secrets feels like a mission accomplished more than an inspired piece of storytelling, but it is a worthy mission and it is accomplished with skill. ~ Perry Seibert, Rovi For all but the most nitpicking Potterphiles out there, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is nothing less than the perfect visual incarnation of J.K. Rowling's world of swooping owls and flying broomsticks. However, it's never precisely more than that, either; the very act of giving image and voice to these rich literary precepts places them in a realm inevitably less magical than the imagination. Still, it's hard to picture a more essentially faithful adaptation of Rowling's tone and story, which weighs in at a hefty two and a half hours despite streamlining some of the more vestigial elements of a quick 300-page read. Steve Kloves' adaptation of the wildly popular bestseller lingers less on some of the episodic Hogwarts' adventures, only briefly touching on such red herring plot points as the wise centaur and Hagrid's dragon. The eye-popping visuals have numerous other opportunities to shine, chief among them the grippingly rendered Quidditch match, in which players on broomsticks zoom and jockey like the speeder bikes of Endor in Return of the Jedi. It's no surprise that Harry Potter should occasionally invoke a Star Wars movie, since its hero is an orphaned boy who yearns for a destiny beyond what his aunt and uncle can provide, and who possesses unparalleled mystical powers that the dark side seeks to corrupt. The landscape Chris Columbus and cinematographer John Seale have created -- with its levitating banquet hall decorations, animated games of wizard chess, ominous trolls, and three-headed dogs -- is of equal vividness and complexity as that galaxy far, far away, and it should make just as much if not more money. Besides the film's many technical achievements, the actors really deliver, well beyond the who's who of British thespians who comprise the Hogwarts' teachers. Daniel Radcliffe has the look and reluctant heroism of Harry down perfectly, if a little too languidly; he's bested by Emma Watson's deliciously petulant and precocious Hermione, as well as the masterful line deliveries and comic timing of Rupert Grint as Ron. ~ Derek Armstrong, Rovi With nearly 900 pages to its name, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the longest book in the Harry Potter series. In the hands of director David Yates, it became the shortest film. The presence of house elves is nearly non-existent, and there was no mention of Dumbledore's (Michael Gambon) controversial selection of school prefects, Quidditch, or the betrayal of Ron's (Rupert Grint) brother, who estranged himself from his family in favor of The Ministry of Magic. The dark artifacts in Sirius' (Gary Oldman) house appear to be collecting dust on the cutting-room floor, and aside from a brief mention of their "pureblood mania," so does the Blacks' family history.
Yet, despite the absence of these and various other moments from the book, Yates nonetheless admirably captured the essence of what fans refer to affectionately as "OOTP": oppression, rebellion, paranoia, denial, betrayal, and the rollercoaster that is being 15 years old. Rivaling Voldemort himself for sheer evil and his followers for unerring sycophantism, Imelda Staunton is superb as Dolores Umbridge, the Ministry-appointed Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher with a honey voice, pink wardrobe, and very little qualms regarding child torture. While Staunton darkens the palette considerably, Order was already a dark film; the first scene depicts a grimy, graffiti-ridden alleyway in the "muggle" world, and for the first time, the wizard community is hardly an improvement. The world is a generally unfair place in Order. Just a few months after witnessing the murder of a classmate, an already traumatized Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is subjected not only to the disdain of his peers (a hazard of celebrity which he somewhat regularly endures), but also gets the cold shoulder from the community at large, which has been swayed by propaganda touting Harry as a spoiled egomaniac. Whereas Harry is none too pleased with his treatment, fellow outcast Luna (aka "Looney") Lovegood handles her own pariah status with a dreamy grace peppered by crackpot theories and genuine insight alike; soft-spoken newcomer Evanna Lynch seems custom-designed for the role. The infamous trio (Grint, Radcliffe, and Emma Watson as Hermione) deserve no small amount of credit for their own performances -- they've grown up with these characters and it shows. Still, the elder British cast couldn't help but steal the show once again. Gambon makes a believably impressive Dumbledore alongside Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) in the film's riveting final battle, while Helena Bonham Carter's relentlessly unhinged take on the uber-loyal, prison-hardened Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange made for an interesting contrast to Staunton's infuriatingly restrained brand of cruelty. Overall, despite the lack of several key book elements and the addition of several not-so-key others, Order of the Phoenix is a rousing, effectively streamlined addition to the Potter series, and set the tone well for the next installment, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. ~ Tracie Cooper, Rovi