Harry Potter has eluded me. I've never been one for ogres and fairies and magic and more. It seemed to me that anything involving magic was a cop out, as any problem could be solved by saying "Thank God we have the magical ______!"

That said, I have heard over and over again how wonderful this series is. So I'm watching all the HP movies and critiquing them leading up to the release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1."

Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter not in  3D

This was cool. This was so cool. The last twenty minutes of “Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban” are more satisfying and mystifying then any of the mind bending stuff that was done in “Inception”. Really.

“Azkaban” marked a change for the franchise. New director. New art direction. Darker themes and more gothic set design. The style of this movie is noticeably different. Everyone is pale and shiny and looking generally uncomfortable, and it almost always appears to be overcast or dark.

Most of the whimsical asides of the prior two movies are gone, and this is good as it moves along the plot, so all we get in this film is a scene where they're making animal sounds and eating candy that makes steam come out of their ears. This strikes me as the Harry Potter version of getting stoned and I liked it.

However, if you're going to make these movies more gritty, you're practically challenging your audience, and thus me, to question the logistics of everything. Probably a bad idea when your entire franchise is literally people pointing sticks at each other.

“Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban” however, manages to steal one. The plot of the movie is easy to follow, it starts in the beginning, ends at the end, and the climax is just plain wonderful. This is good, as unsatisfying climaxes have plagued the past two films.

Things kick off after Harry goes all “Carrie” and uses magic on his aunt, blowing her up like a balloon. He's then whisked away in a magical bus that leads him to the Ministry of Magic. Harry is told he won't be expelled for using magic on a human. Then, amazingly, there's a plot point. In the first half hour! It turns out there's a fellow named Sirius Black who has escaped from prison and is probably coming after Harry. In the first two movies, this little plot development would have happened about an hour into the film. After Quiddich. God I hate Quiddich. Thankfully it's only in this movie for about 60 seconds.

Eventually things take a turn for the worse, people who were thought of as enemies are friends, a couple of people turn out to be a werewolf while another is a rat, and there's a magical flying creature who deserves to be made into a plush toy I can cuddle. It's all quite enthralling and a delightful use of the fantasy genre that allows the imagination to flourish.

What's awesome is that magic isn't solving problems. Except for a key point in the third act, but the payoff was just so cool, I didn't care. I could sit back and hate on this movie because of the deus ex machina, but I don't want to because I enjoyed it all.

The movie I'm reminded of when thinking of this new style for Harry Potter is “The Dark Knight”. It's similar to this movie in the sense that it wants to take what is a largely fantastical universe and make it seem real and gritty and, well, possible. Yet, “The Dark Knight” is full of plot holes. Check out the goofs on IMDB , there's a ton of 'em. But, because The Dark Knight was so well paced, and acted, and captivating, no one cared while watching the thing.

The same goes for this movie. Surely there are holes in the plot and a few eye rolls, but they're all small potatoes. My worst fears have not been realized. In fact, isn't even a lot of “tell an adult” syndrome. because the gang actually does tell an adult and the adult helps them! Astonishing!

The film takes care of some of my gripes from prior films, I like that the paintings are now almost always moving and have actual personalities.Probably due to the maturation of special effects technology. In prior movies they were stationary unless focused on. Though now I find myself drawn to the background to see if all the paintings are moving. Sadly not always.

I'm worried that the remaining movies won't have as cool of a plot device for the third act. As the movies grow more serious and the stakes become raised, the storytelling will start relying on some magical spells that has just been created, or worse, duels. People pointing sticks at each other is boring. There's only so many times a person can flick their wrist before I start making my own jokes. I know I am going to laugh at these amazing magical duels that involve a wind machine blowing Harry Potter's feathered hair while he points a stick and computers do the rest.

But this movie, which is just mature enough to be taken seriously, but still a bit hokey and fun enough to get a pass on the gritty nature of things, is definitely the highpoint of the series thus far.