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The producers of the Harry Potter movies are turning out to be almost as prolific as the author of the books. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the third film in less than 3 years, and with number four on the way, there’s no sign of stopping.

Natural Magic

The most magical thing is the growth of 3 magical friends
The most magical thing is the growth of 3 magical friends

Even with all the special effects and a universe exempt from the laws of physics, the most magical thing about Azkaban is how much older and bigger our young movie stars look. Ron (Rupert Grint) now wears a mop of red hair, Hermione (Emma Watson) is growing into a young woman, and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), sporting the same haircut and eyeglasses, is showing teenage rebellion and independence. In fact the movie opens with Harry leaving his uncle and aunt and burning his bridges behind him.

Soon Harry is back at school for another year of education and adventure. Everyone at Hogwart’s is abuzz with the news of the escaped criminal Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who managed to evade the ghoulish dementors that guard the prison of Azkaban. Harry encountered one of these creatures on the train to Hogwart’s and it nearly scared him to death. Gone are the childish fears of strange adults; these things are truly deadly.

There isn’t a single conflict that drives the film. Instead, several mysteries are pursued, involving the new characters and creatures introduced in The Prisoner of Azkaban.

New Faces

Each Harry Potter movie introduces new characters and new elements, keeping each movie fresh. In Azkaban, Emma Thompson embodies the granola professor of divinations Sybil Terlawnyk. We also get to meet Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), who takes Potter under his wing as though he were his own nephew. The prisoner of the title is also introduced. He brings news regarding Harry’s parents, although he gets hardly any screen time. Also Dubmledore returns with a new voice: Richard Harris, who died last year, is replaced by Michael Gambon, under enough makeup and hair to fool the casual observer.

There are also a new creatures, including the soul-sucking dementors and the noble, aloof hippogriff, with the body of a horse and the wings and head of an eagle. There’s also a boggart, a creature that takes the shape of whatever you fear most. A toothless, cowardly Malfoy (Tom Felton) returns with as much bile as ever but with no power over our three friends.

Azkaban also introduces a new director, Alfonso Cuarón, who directed a beautifully lush Great Expectations and the racy Y Tu Mamá También. I joked that this would be the lushest, sexiest Harry Potter yet, and although its PG rating comes mostly because of the frights, there are hints of romantic awakenings in these teenagers. Ron and Hermione share the odd glance or touch that seems more interested than casual. As for lushness, this is the first Harry Potter to take place mostly outdoors. Much of the film happens in the steep hillsides around Hogwart’s, and Cuarón keeps returning to a spirally animated tree that marks the changing of the seasons.

A Link in a Chain

As with the other Harry Potter films, Azkaban is burdened by the source material. It’s impossible to fit ever-lengthening novels into a 140-minute movie, but with so many adamant fans, the producers can’t to cut too much without alienating the readers. The compromise is to compress scenes, events, and characters. The last 20 minutes is particularly dense, with villains and friends spilling their secrets faster than the Hoover Dam during a rainstorm.

Azkaban is as good as any other Harry Potter movie. The machine that makes them can’t afford to change the formula (even a new director hardly makes a dent), so what you’ve seen before is what you get this time as well. Maybe a consensus will emerge as to which movie is the best so far, but in the grand scheme of things, they’re really all the same movie.

Luckily, that means they’re all enjoyable, and we’ll get to keep checking in on these promising young people as they grow up.