Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

"There's magic in the web of it."

Like most human beings, 13-year-old Harry Potter is becoming plain interesting as he gets older. The newest installment, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," is a testimony to testosterone and tribulation as Harry, Hermione, and Ron meet the threat of mass murderer Sirus Black, who, upon escaping Azkaban Prison, seriously wants to find Harry. Even the hundreds of Dementors sent to protect Hogwarts from Black are more trouble than they are worth.

What makes Harry and buds more interesting than ever is that they care more deeply about each other and take more time to figure out their strategies, the way intelligent adults do. The use of time travel to set things right is not just a plot device but more a way of showing the importance of each decision along the way of life, a kind of existential anguish for teens, who even in normal times have enough trouble defining themselves by the choices they make. The wickedly intelligent Hermione emerges as more than a just a smart-ass girl in a male dominated school: She's pivotal in focusing Harry on the task at hand and even punches out a nasty boy. Romance has not even been hinted at; friendship, loyalty, and love of the purest kind are foremost for these adventurers. Gone is Director Chris Columbus's phallic imagery and quick cuts for "Chamber of Secrets"; in is Director Alfonso Cuar?n's ("Y tu Mama Tambien") more delicate pubescent parable, like the need to know oneself and one's parents.

The special effects are as smoothly integrated as ever--the first sequence of a magic triple-decker bus carrying and careening Harry through London to "The Leaky Cauldron" is funny and harrowing, like the rest of the story. The twisted, animated tree continues to hold multiple secrets while it flings leaves and people at will. But in the end, it's the people like Dumbledore and the Dark Arts teacher who provide the excitement for a young man now relying more on his wits than on magic to get him through.

At the beginning of "Prisoner of Azkaban," when Harry "blows up" his abusive aunt, he knows the action is extreme and maybe not exactly what he wanted, but his emerging adult nature sees the justice due ("She got what she deserved"), and he won't undo it. Welcome to responsibility for your actions, Harry. Adult life may be filled with terrifying enemies--you just have to deal with them as fairly and smartly as possible.

Finally, the third year at Hogwarts more boldly than ever forces the young teens to confront the challenges of appearance and reality: Some enemies turn out to be friends if you give them time to disclose their true natures. Harry's life just became more complicated as he moves into the magic of real life.

Like the other "Potter" installments, "There's magic in the web of it."