Greetings from Azkaban Park, New Jersey

Watching the third Harry Potter movie is a bit like watching someone drive an aging, souped up car: when they improve the engine, it just makes how the car’s suspension creaks through the corners more obvious.

harry / hermione

Harry / Hermione Slash. You know it’s coming

In the earlier, worse movies, it was easy to ignore the underperforming actors and actresses, because Chris Columbus’ (Home Alone) direction was so ox- stunningly, earth shakingly bad. Three hour movies – that felt longer – with every unimportant detail of the Rowling books included, and littered with endless reaction shots, like some freakish movie version of “Hello Kitty” mixed with Edvard Munch’s The Cry. Instead,The Prisoner of Azkaban is blessed with director Alfonso Cuaron, who unlike his predecessor does not consistently underestimate the sophistication of his audience.

Where Columbus tells, Cuaron shows. Where Columbus explains in soul-crushing detail, Cuaron hints, or simply omits. Where Columbus overwhelms with baroque detail, Cuaron overwhelms with simplicity, cutting to the emotional core of the story: that while Harry may be a powerful wizard, he is also walking wounded.

Unfortunately, although the quality of the filmmaking has improved, the quality of the acting has not. It is painful to contemplate that out of the three leads, the most improved is Rupert Grint’s portrayal of semi-comic- relief Ron Weasley. I give up on Emma Watson, completely. One moment, she’s almost capturing the essence of the character in movement and mannerism, and then she opens her mouth, literally stiffens like a board and proceeds to recite lines as if off a cue card. At least the actor who plays Harry, Daniel Radcliffe, is consistent in his mere adequacy.

Notably improved from previous movies is the role of Dumbledore. Michael Gambon (who in my mind is inextricably linked with the raging, magnetic, apocalyptic portrayal of gangster/restaurant owner Spica in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover) brings much needed life and spice to the role. Richard Harris’ somnabulic stint as Dumbledore should be forgotten like a bad dream. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, Hermione will undergo a similar transformation. Gary Oldman also has a brief cameo, playing Gary Oldman.

The special effects were much better in this film than in either of its predecessors. The editing was tight and fast, and many intelligent choices were made about what to omit from the screenplay. This is yet another example where less is more. I mope at the opportunities lost in the last films, where so much fat could have been trimmed off the bones. The stories (or at least the movies of the stories) would have been better for it.

I enjoyed Azkaban more than either of the two previous films – for example, I didn’t fall asleep during this one – and I hope that for the fourth film, the producers continue to make more changes of the sort that improved this film. Audiences are flexible. If we could deal with James Bond changing faces ten times, we can deal with Harry or Hermione suddenly changing their appearances during adolescence and developing acting skills.