The film centers on the escape of the sinister Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) from Azkaban Prison; Sirius was convicted in Voldemort’s plot to murder Harry’s parents, and now it’s suspected he must finish the job by killing Harry. As Harry returns for his third year at Hogwarts, grim wraiths named Dementors are stationed at every entrance to the school to ward off Sirius, but the Dementors are hardly reassuring, with their trick of sucking away the soul essence of their victims.
Harry, too, has developed an edge. We first met him as the poor adopted relative of a suburban family that mistreated him mercilessly; this time, Harry is no longer the long-suffering victim but zaps an unpleasant dinner guest with a magical revenge that would be truly cruel if it were not, well, truly funny. Harry is no longer someone you can mess with.
Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) return to a Hogwarts that boasts, as it does every school year, peculiar new faculty members (this school policy promises years of employment for British character actors). New this year are Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), who tutors Harry in a tricky incantation said to provide protection against the dark magic of Sirius, and Professor Sybil Trelawney (Emma Thompson), whose tea readings don’t pull punches– not when she gazes into the bottom of Harry’s cup and sees death in the leaves.
To distract Harry from his presumed fate, his friend the gamekeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) introduces the three friends to a wondrous new beast named Buckbeak, which is a hippogriff, half bird, half horse, wholly misunderstood. When a werewolf begins to prowl the grounds, a battle between the two creatures is inevitable. Who could the werewolf be by day? Does no one at Hogwarts find the Latin root of lupus suggestive?
Among the movie’s many special effects, I especially admired the gnarled tree that figures in the third act. The tree is introduced with a wink to the viewer who knows it is CGI: It shakes melting snow from its branches, and some of the snow seems to plop on the camera lens. Beneath this tree is a warren that shelters unimaginable terrors for Ron, when he is dragged into it as part of a longer climactic sequence that plays tricks with time. First the three heroes witness one version of events, and then, after reversing the flow of time, they try to alter them. The ingenuity of the time-tricks worked for me but may puzzle some of the film’s youngest viewers.