There are many reasons why “Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban” is the best of the three “Harry Potter” pics to date: It’s shorter (though not by enough), it seems less like a theme-park ride and more like a real movie, and its heroes (and several assorted rogues) are beginning to feel familiar, like old friends.

It is also, happily, not directed by Chris Columbus.

For all his fidelity to J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” universe, Columbus – the one-time protege of Steven Spielberg – never captured the soul of the books, just their special effects. Certainly, in the first two films, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry looked amazing, with its M.C. Escher stairways and wild and woolly Quidditch field, and the secret worlds beyond the grasp of us earthbound Muggles were re-created with awe-inspiring detail. Too much awe, in fact – Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his schoolmates seemed forever gazing up, mouths agape, eyes a-poppin’, boggled.

From the get-go, “Azkaban,” directed by Alfonso Cuaron, is better. Brooding, bespectacled Harry, at home for summer with his adoptive (and abhorrent) Dursley clan, loses his temper at the dinner table. Really loses it: unleashing a mighty spell on his visiting aunt – turning her into a human zeppelin, sailing aloft into the English skies, screaming. It’s a big no-no, misusing your powers of magic like that, but there’s a wonderful glint of triumph in Harry’s eye, a bit of teenage rebellion. Yes, he’s 13 now.

The jumbled battlements of Hogwarts Castle, when Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) arrive there for the start of their third year, appear more rooted to a place -specifically to a hilly, lakeside land, with an imposing wood and rock-sharded grounds. When they’re out of their school uniforms and wearing sneakers, corduroys and hoodies, the three Gryffindor pals look as if they’re in Nick Drake country: shaggy young hipsters traipsing through beautiful, melancholy old Britain, draped in mist and mystery.

The titular villain of “The Prisoner of Azkaban” is one Sirius Black (played by Gary Oldman, when he finally shows up), a legendary figure linked to the dastardly Lord Voldemort – and hence to Harry’s parents’ untimely deaths. Harry is warned that Sirius, escaped from jail, is now out to kill him, too. Siriusly. Those few souls (what – three people in Iceland, maybe?) who remain unfamiliar with the Rowling books or the previous pics may find themselves befuddled by the references to Voldemort, and all the Hogwarts intrigue, but fear not. There are more pressing matters.

Along with a returning retinue that includes the blackhearted student Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), the scowling sourpuss Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), the gigantic, eccentric Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and Hogwarts’ creaky headmaster, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, taking over from the departed Richard Harris), new faculty – and new creatures – are on the scene. Foremost among these is Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), a kindly tutor in the defense of the dark arts who takes Harry under his wing, but whose scarred visage portends a troubled past – and, perhaps, a troubled present. The relationship between Lupin and Harry is at the emotional heart of “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” along with the fast friendship of Harry, Hermione and Ron. The threesome are truly that – watching each other’s backs, thinking each other’s thoughts.

Of the non-human newcomers to populate Cuaron’s movie, Buckbeak, a half-horse/half-eagle “Hippogriff” who appears to have stepped out of a Ray Harryhausen fantasy, steals the show. Clumsy on the ground and graceful in the air, this huge beast is not just a special- effects marvel but a character that, without uttering a word, figures prominently in the tale.

Cuaron, who scandalized his native Mexico two years ago with the menage a trois road pic, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (but also has a Hollywood children’s classic under his belt, 1995’s “A Little Princess”), is as interested in relationships – alliances, rivalries, secret histories, budding romances, even – as he is in animatronics and CGI. The result is a movie that feels more substantive, and has more heart.

Occasionally, the Hogwarts huggermugger gets ahead of itself, or bogged down in detail. And this viewer, at least, found the digitally created Dementors – deathly phantoms assigned to guard Hogwarts from intruders, but with indiscriminate vigilance against both friend and foe – to be disappointing.

But in the end, “Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban” offers what neither of its predecessors, for all their wand-waving and witch-brooms, had: real magic.



HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN

3 stars

Produced by David Heyman, Chris Columbus and Mark Radcliffe, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, written by Steve Kloves, from the novel by J.K. Rowling, photography by Michael Seresin, music by John Williams, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 22 mins.

Harry Potter/Daniel Radcliffe

Ron Weasley/Rupert Grint

Hermione Granger/Emma Watson

Sirius Black/Gary Oldman

Professor Snape/Alan Rickman

Parent’s guide: PG (scares, creatures, violence)



(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer’s World Wide Web site, at http://www.philly.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-06-03-04 0823EDT



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