It is year three for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends at Hogwarts School and the big news as the year begins is that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped Azkaban Prison. We first see Sirius as a screaming madman on the headlines of the paper. He was put in prison years ago when he was charged with assisting You-Know-Who in the murder of Harry's parents, and it's assumed he's headed to Hogwarts to find Harry. Knowing that someone is out to murder you is a lot for any teenager to take, but the trauma is compounded when Harry learns that Sirius and Harry's father, James, were friends when they attended Hogwarts.
The school staff does its best to protect Harry. Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), the new teacher of the Defence Against the Dark Arts, spends time after class and teaches Harry new spells, but will Harry master them in time? Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) summons the guards of the Azkaban Prison - black, willowy specters known as Dementors - to secure the school grounds. These creatures have the ability to suck your soul right out of you. The problem is that Sirius snuck by them once to escape. Will the Dementors be able to find him before it's too late? To make matters even worse, it's discovered that one of the teachers is assisting Sirius, but whom?
This film is well written and Steven Kloves does a good job adapting J. K. Rowling's novel. The script strikes a proper balance of telling the story no matter the audience's knowledge of this world. Relationships aren't re-explained for the newcomers, but there is enough exposition, presented in a different way, to catch people up without boring those who already know what's going on.
While I praise the script, I should point out it's not the most original story. After all, these stories take place in the fantasy genre and are children's books, so it's no surprise that some elements feel familiar and obvious, such as Professor Lupin being a werewolf. Also, I would have liked more of an explanation as to what the Dementors specifically do and their origins. These are minor asides; however, because there is a plenty of characterization and plot developments to keep the viewer's interest.
The actors get better and better with each film. I am almost embarrassed for the current state of American films because they never have this many good acting performances in one Hollywood film. Oldman, Thewlis, and Emma Thompson as Divination professor Sybill Trelawney all do a wonderful job bringing their characters to life. In fact, my favorite scene takes place when Sirius, Lupin, and Snape (Alan Rickman) are squaring off. It's the first time all three are together in the film, but they capture the essence of people who have known each other for years. Michael Gambon doesn't distract in his taking over the role of Dumbledore, previously played by the late Richard Harris. There wasn't a whole lot for him to do in this story so it gives him a chance to ease into the role. I didn't have a problem with the kids growing up as has bothered some simple-minded critics. They looked fine to me since they are supposed to be aging. I did have a problem with one minor character, Neville, though. He grew out of being a chubby kid into a long beanpole. They should have recast him because he barely resembles himself from the previous films.
I don't understand all the commentary in regards to the new director as if he saved the franchise. Admittedly, Chris Columbus is a boring director whose creative choices could come out of a software program for all I know, but you would think that Alfonso Cuarón reinvented the language of cinema. I didn't notice anything special about his creative choices. I hear some say that this story is darker, but he had nothing to do with that. That's Rowling. The effects are better used, but after two-three years they naturally would be. That's how technology works, but again, that's not anything done by the director. I'm the first one to pounce on a bad director and Columbus must have compromising photos of someone to be to continue to work, but the current criticism is unwarranted. Now if people want to talk about how lame Nine Months or Home Alone is, please email me.