This is easily the best Harry Potter film yet, though a few qualifiers need to be added to that endorsement. Darker than the earlier films and filled with greater emotional nuance, it is likely to appeal more to adults and adolescents than to younger kids. And if you haven't seen the two previous Potter movies or read J.K. Rowling's wildly popular novels upon which they are based, you may have a tough time figuring out who's who and what's what and miss out on the shadings and some of the jokes.
Harry Potter (Radcliffe), now 13, is still a wizard-in-training at Hogwarts, a school for the magically inclined. He finds himself in apparent danger when an evil wizard, Sirius Black (Oldman), escapes from Azkaban prison. Harry is told that Black passed on information that led to the death of our hero's parents and that he's now after Harry.
Unlike earlier Potter films, where you often felt as if you were watching kids ape grown-up action heroes, the emphasis here is on an adolescent Harry and his pals meeting dangerous challenges with measured courage and ingenuity rather than just derring-do. Director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamà También), new to the series, tightens the focus on characters and relationships. The supporting cast remains a dazzling who's who of British character actors, though returning vets Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman are underused. Emma Thompson is the standout freshman, contributing a hilarious bit as dithering Sibyll Trelawney, a vision-challenged professor of divination. And while the late Richard Harris's magisterial aura is missed as Albus Dumbledore, successor Gambon makes for a seemingly more approachable headmaster of Hogwarts. (PG)