Maybe Harry Potter needed a kick in the butt. With "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," opening today, he certainly gets it.
The first two Potter movies — "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (HP1) and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" (HP2) — were faithful renditions of the first two J.K. Rowling novels, which are instant literary classics of our time. The director of both films was Chris Columbus, a Steven Spielberg protégé, who'd previously directed the "Home Alone" movies, two of the biggest box-office hits of the early '90s. Critics never much liked Columbus, who brought a warm, unpretentious and, alas, helplessly unhip touch to his films. So there was a lot of carping about his direction of the Potter movies. Why, it was asked, hadn't he done something with the material: expanded it, twisted it around somehow, made it his own?
Maybe he didn't see the need. Rowling's books present a fully realized world of magic and wizardry, laced with unpointed, but unmistakable, observations about racism, classism, sexism and, overridingly, the nature of good and evil. These subjects aren't forced — no 10-year-old is likely to be brought up short by them; but no 15-year-old is likely to mistake them, either. In turning the Potter stories into movies, Columbus may have felt there wasn't a whole lot he needed to add; everything was already there. The stories didn't need to be transformed, only transmitted.
Judging by the phenomenal response to the first two Potter movies, he wasn't wrong about this. However, not wanting to consecrate the rest of his life to directing the film versions of all seven Harry Potter books (two of which remain to be written), Columbus decided to step aside and, as an executive producer, bring in a new director for the third movie. The person he chose — surprisingly, to some people — was Alfonso Cuarón, the much-admired Mexican filmmaker best-known for his 2001 sex-and-drugs road-trip movie, "Y Tu Mamá También." Why him? a lot of people wondered.
"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" — HP3, as we'll call it — provides a pretty dazzling answer. This Potter is dark and windswept and very wet: It's a rainy, lowering world. There's one hallucinatory sequence — a frightening attack scene on the shore of an iced-over lake — that (if I may pose as an art expert for a moment) recalls the more turbulent works of the 16th-Century Venetian painter Tintoretto. This is not Chris Columbus's Harry Potter. But it is still J.K. Rowling's: The story and its wonderful inventions remain immutably the same; they're just being transmitted on a different frequency.
I won't weary you with a dry, tiresome summary. Well, not too much. Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron (the excellent Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint) have returned to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for their third year of arcane education, along with such colorful classmates as the hapless Neville Longbottom and the vividly detestable Draco Malfoy and his two hulking enforcers, Crabbe and Goyle. The faculty remains largely intact: the prim Professor McGonagall; the bearlike groundskeeper Hagrid (now appropriately promoted: he's teaching a course called Care of Magical Creatures); and the terminally sour Potions instructor Severus Snape (played by Alan Rickman, continuing one of the most flamboyantly supercilious performances in screen history). And Albus Dumbledore, of course, is still headmaster. (Although, with Richard Harris, who originally played him, having died two years ago, he's now portrayed, in a less brittle way, by the celebrated Irish stage actor Michael Gambon).
There's also a Divination teacher this time out: the loopy, crystal-ball-wielding Professor Trelawny (played with hearty abandon by Emma Thompson). And there's a new teacher in that most luckless of Hogwarts departments, Defense against the Dark Arts. The previous occupants of this position having been dispatched either by death or by ridicule, the new professor, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), can only be — and is — an improvement. But he also has a dark secret. (The name Lupin is a fairly obvious clue; and Remus is a character in Roman mythology who as an infant was nursed by a wolf.)
The story is set in motion by the escape of Sirius Black from the notorious wizard prison of Azkaban. Black (gamely played by Gary Oldman with a mouthful of rotting teeth and a chest full of tattoos) is a convicted murderer, and purportedly the man responsible for the death of Harry's parents at the hands of the evil Lord Voldemort. Now that he's free, it's feared he'll soon be showing up at Hogwarts to finish off Harry Potter, the wizard who somehow defeated the dark lord as a baby.
Nothing is quite what it seems, of course: Black has unexpected links to both Lupin and Snape, and he's also Harry's godfather — possibly even his salvation. It's a little complicated, especially when you factor in a time-vaulting storyline that ties the plot into wonderful, head-spinning knots. Fortunately, there's a Hippogriff on hand to help sort all of this out. We'll get to him in a moment.
HP3 is a radically different movie from the two preceding entries in the Potter series. The lighting is more naturalistic and a little less magical, as are the jeans and other here-and-now attire the students have taken to wearing. And of course Harry and his classmates are all older. In the books, they naturally age a year in each succeeding volume; but to see this physical evolution onscreen is a little jarring — especially since the production of the movies is falling behind: Harry is supposed to be turning 13 in HP3; but Daniel Radcliffe, who plays him, will turn 15 next month. (Nothing can be done about this, obviously; and the principal kids have been signed for the next film, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which is already under way. But there have been rumblings about hiring a whole new, younger cast for the fifth movie, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," and this is a dismal prospect to contemplate.)
"The Prisoner of Azkaban" is frequently beautiful to look at. Cuarón's long, swooping overhead shots are breathtaking, and the requisite Quidditch match — a rain-whipped contest here, played amid smashes of thunder and lightning — is the most spectacular Quidditch match yet, which is really saying something. Equally sensational is an extended classroom sequence in which the students confront a Boggart — an insidious demon that can take the shape of each of their darkest fears. There are very few movie classroom scenes that could be called action-packed; maybe none. Until now.
All in all, HP3's computer effects are the series' most intelligently deployed to date. CGI was a sometimes problematic area in the last two Potter movies. The three-headed dog guarding the trap door in HP1 was too much of a cartoon; and despite the remarkable intricacy of the bathroom sequence in which it appeared, so was the lumbering mountain troll. And then, of course, in HP2, there was Dobby the house elf — the Jar Jar Binks of the Potter saga.
In HP3, Cuarón and his team have taken digital effects to a more interesting level. Sometimes they're subtle: Watching Hagrid skip stones out over the surface of the Hogwarts lake, it would be easy to miss the way the stones go on skipping and skipping off into the distance — magically, you might say. Not at all subtle, on the other hand, is the "Monster Book of Monsters," a compendium of ferocious creatures that's fearsomely ferocious itself, just waiting to rip the face off any student who opens it unwarily.
Oddly, the FX people weren't quite as successful with the Dementors. These towering, hooded creatures, brought in to guard Hogwarts against Sirius Black, are suitably gruesome (they can suck the soul out of anyone they take a disliking to), but they're also distractingly reminiscent of the black-robed ringwraiths in the "Lord of the Rings" movies, and this vague familiarity flattens their effect. (Which isn't to say that if you're 10 years old they won't scare you to death.)
There's one real CGI triumph in HP3, though: Buckbeak the Hippogriff. Buckbeak, one of Hagrid's many ill-advised acquisitions, is an impossible creature: half horse, half eagle. But he's rendered with such minute attention to corporeal detail and theoretical movement that he's uncannily real — the Gollum of the Potter saga. When Harry is boosted onto his back and they soar off into the sky, your heart lifts up along with them.
I wish I could say I loved this movie, because there are lovable things like that in it. I admire the skill and the imagination that went into making "The Prisoner of Azkaban," and I can certainly recommend it as a thrill-filled blockbuster that doesn't make you wish, within its first 15 minutes, that you'd kept your ticket money and just ... thrown it in a Dumpster or something. But it's a substantial departure in tone from the other Potter films, and seriously devoted fans — okay, geeks — may need some time to process the change. I'd have to say I don't love this movie. But then I'd have to say, not yet.