Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane

Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón

Rating: 1 2 3 4 5

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter

With The Prisoner of Azkaban, both Harry Potter and JK Rowling come of age, making this by far the best book so far. As Harry enters his third year at Hogwarts, it's goodbye Enid Blyton dormitory japes and hello a plot that is complex, involving and serious and prose that is concise, insightful and eminently readable, with none of the sprawling, self-indulgent irrelevancy that spoils the fourth book, which was written whilst Pottermania was at its height.

But enough of the lit crit - how does The Prisoner of Azkaban measure up as a film?

New director Alfonso Cuarón (of Y Tu Mamá También fame - not that I've actually seen it) invests the film with a darker, more sinister sensibility. Hogwarts is now located recognisably in the Highlands of Scotland (the scenery is breathtaking, incidentally), surrounded by mountains and lochs and utterly isolated from civilisation (even the neighbouring village of Hogwarts has a Hielan' Coos wandering the streets). We are now in wild, romantic, gothic territory, which complements perfectly the dark twists of the plot and the burgeoning emotions of Harry, Ron and Hermione (c'mon JK, they just have to get together!).

Harry is now thirteen, and getting stroppy with it. But of course when Harry gets stroppy, it isn't just a case of a few slammed doors and a stereo turned up loud: glasses smash, snakes attack and horrible fat Aunt Marge ends up floating across the neat lawns of suburbia, inflated like a huge balloon.

Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore

After a brief moment of madness involving a purple triple-decker bus that thinks it's Herbie, Harry is reunited with best pals Ron and Hermione for the return to Hogwarts. But all is not well at the school for witchcraft and wizardry, for there's a dangerous madman on the loose, the grounds are being patrolled by terrifying spectral ghouls called Dementors and headmaster Albus Dumbledore has metamorphosed into an old hippy. Joke! Michael Gambon in fact assumes the revered mantle of Dumbledore from the late great Richard Harris with charming ease, managing to shine his own irreverent light on the character whilst allowing for continuity by echoing Harris's rich Irish tones.

Of course, Dumbledore is not the only person who's changed since the last film. The child actors have all grown up, and seem to slip more comfortably into their roles, although only Harry appears to have developed much as a character. Hermione remains an insufferable swot and Malfoy a snivelling malicious creep; Neville is still a hopeless buffoon and Ron is still, well, hopeless.

But who cares about the kids? One of the joys of the Harry Potter films is the crazy cast of grown-ups, and The Prisoner of Azkaban certainly does not disappoint. Besides regulars Mark Williams and Julie Walters as Mr and Mrs Weasley, Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid and the scene-stealing Alan Rickman as Severus Snape (doesn't get to do a lot in this film but what he does is great), we are treated to cameos by Julie Christie, Dawn French (who's fabulous as the Fat Lady in a portrait), Timothy Spall and Robert Hardy. Best of all, though, is Emma Thompson as crazed divination teacher Sybil Trewlaney. Swathed in gypsy scarves and sporting goggle-like glasses and a manic perm, she's like Deirdre Barlow tripping on acid in the Summer of Love and she completely steals the film. Just a shame she doesn't get more scenes really.

David Thewlis brings to the role of lycanthropic Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Professor Lupin the kind of down-to-earth normality that he brought to the ludicrous fantasy films Dragonheart and The Island of Dr Moreau, and his scenes with Harry when they talk about his parents are really rather touching. His transformation into a werewolf beats the pants off Van Bloody Helsing as well. although sadly we never get to hear him ask the boy wizard: 'What's it like to be you, ey?'

The fabulous Gary Oldman as Sirius Black

And then we have the No. 1 bad guy of choice, the fabulous Gary Oldman, as escaped murderer and madman Sirius Black. If there's anybody out there who doesn't know that the much maligned Black is actually innocent, then Oldman's reputation for playing f***ed up weirdos and psychopaths will certainly have you fooled. With shaggy hair, rotten teeth and ragged prison tattoos, he cuts a pretty terrifying figure (until you realise how damn short he is - was he standing on a box in Bram Stoker's Dracula or something?) but brings to the character a sense of pathos and lost opportunities that is almost tragic. And, as ever, he's sexy as hell...

Last but definitely not least we have the CGI stars of the film, the Dementors, deathlike shrouded figures whose very presence freezes the blood, sucking all life and joy from the bones, and whose kiss will destroy the soul. The scenes in which they appear are mesmerising and chilling, and it is their dark sinister presence which is principally responsible for killing stone dead the Children's Film Foundation cheeriness of the previous films.

Will these hideous spectres get to Sirius before the resourceful kids can prove his innocence? Will Hagrid's hippogriff (another CGI star) get it in the neck? Will Harry wreak his revenge on the man responsible for the death of his parents, or will he show mercy? Will Ron and Hermione ever get it on? The finale is pure Back to the Future, including an extraordinarily moving and mystical moment that makes you remember that magic is about more than just pointing a wand and spouting mumbo jumbo Latin, but it won't answer all your questions. Four more films to go, remember.

In the grounds of Hogwarts

More suspenseful than seat-grippingly exciting, The Prisoner of Azkaban is well-paced, spiced with genuinely funny moments that lighten the gothic gloom and warmed by moving interchanges that really do warm the heart. Of the adults, at any rate - there was some very inappropriate juvenile sniggering going on in the cinema in the sentimental bits, I noticed. In fact, my only criticism of the film is that it didn't seem to hold the attention of the children in my local multiplex. They really shouldn't allow children into Harry Potter films. They totally ruin it for us adults.

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