Harry Potter's magical powers are diminishing. No, I'm not referring to Harry Potter the character. As a third-year student at the castle-like Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, he's more in control of his powers than ever. For that matter, he's more confident about when to use them.
In this movie's opening sequence, he transforms his hideous, disrespectful "Muggle" (the wizard term for non-magical human) aunt into a veritable giant blimp, letting her float over a tidy English subdivision as if lifted up by a sturdy, insistent breeze. She looks like one of the inflatable farm animals used by Pink Floyd in its The Wall-era concerts.
But Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban -- the third screen adaptation from J.K. Rowling's popular series of books -- could use some of its own magical lifting-up. The film, directed by Alfonse Cuarón, best known for the sexy coming-of-age drama Y Tu Mama Tambien, but who also directed the family classic A Little Princess, fails to bring us into the emotional and physical world that Harry, his schoolmates and teachers inhabit at Hogwarts, thus failing to make the elaborate fantasy real. Instead, it brings us into the all-too-real world of soulless, piled-on computer-generated special effects.
Maybe that's enough for children, who presumably will bring their commitment to the stories with them to the film. But for parents and other adults who liked the first two Harry Potters as fantasy-adventure films in their own right, this too often falls flat with the thud of a crashed Quidditch-match broomstick
To be sure, this installment was a challenge. Harry Potter, like the now-14-year-old actor Daniel Radcliffe who plays him, is getting older. He no longer can be satisfied discovering the quirky eccentrics, like the fat-lady ghost who sings (badly) and other creatures who inhabit Hogwarts. He also needs to start moving toward an understanding of his place in the Potter-family legacy as the son of wizard parents killed by cruel Lord Valdemort. In short, he needs to begin growing up. There's bound to be some darkness inherent in that journey.
But -- and I'm sure Rowling's fans will protest -- Harry Potter isn't Hamlet. There's a point when too much darkness destroys the sense of fairy-tale enchantment at the root of all this. By being so dark, Prisoner of Azkaban destroys the sense of community that the first two films established.
The young actors, after finding their groove in 2002's Chamber of Secrets, especially suffer. Radcliffe's Harry and his best friends, Rupert Grint's Ron Weasley and Emma Watson's Hermione Granger spend much of their time away from Hogwarts' picturesque halls. Other students, except for nemesis Draco Malfoy (why hasn't this screw-up been expelled by now?), are largely ignored. Even many members of the fine cast of English actors playing the teachers (Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson) must fight to make an impact. Replacing the late Richard Harris, Michael Gambon plays headmaster Dumbledore with a surprising, no-nonsense seriousness. Robbie Coltrane's genial giant Hagrid is now a professor.
When Harry and his pals roam the nearby hillsides and forests, they could be anywhere. They're stripped of their context, and we become painfully aware they're just young actors being directed through set pieces in a movie with a lot of them. We become self-conscious of their self-consciousness.
This story seems relatively simple, but contains enough twists and dramatically undernourished revelations that I had trouble following. Suffice to say, it concerns the escape from the wizards' supposedly impenetrable prison by convicted murderer Sirius Black played by Gary Oldman, at first like a merry-old-England version of Charles Manson seen in the 3-D wanted-posters plastered around Hogwarts that show him laughing maniacally, he's out to kill Harry for reasons having to do with his parents' death. Or is he?
Trying to stop him is David Thewlis as Professor Lupin, the new dark arts instructor. Best known for his role in Mike Leigh's 1993 drama Naked, Thewlis' nicely understated turn is the film's best performance, matching Alan Rickman as the always-sinister Professor Snape.
Prisoner of Azkaban's greatest creative risk, alas, turns out to be its biggest failure. After two films by director Chris Columbus, a competent but unimaginative Steven Spielberg protégé, Warner Bros. brought in the talented and artistic Cuarón to give this film more flair and an increased, foreboding sensibility. (Screenwriter Steve Kloves is still in place.)
At first, this seemed a bizarre choice: Cuarón's sexually explicit Y Tu Mama Tambien, about a raucous and sometimes-raunchy road trip across Mexico by two young men and an older woman, hardly seemed appropriate preparation for this family-friendly venture. But Cuarón's lovely adaptation of the children's novel A Little Princess, mixed dreamy hopefulness with harsh toughness in a tale of a British girl who believes her father has been killed in World War I.
Prisoner of Azkaban turns out to be most like Cuaron's adaptation of Dickens' Great Expectations -- full of spectacle, art design and impressive cinematography (by Roger Pratt) at the expense of a consistent tone. Like that film, this piles on the Gothic hokum. Only it's worse here, because the budget allows for juiced-up special effects.
Cuarón repeatedly offers up mood-establishing shots of dark skies and a wavering willow tree to hype the sense of spookiness. He overdoes the "dementors" -- gigantic caped monsters sent forth to track down Sirius. When they first descend upon a train carrying Harry to Hogwarts, the scene comes on as strong as something in a roller-coaster-ride horror movie like Van Helsing, only with no meaningful payoff.
To be fair, Cuarón does execute a difficult, shifting-time-and-perspective sequence at the end, similar to the first Superman or Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, that is choreographed with masterful visual aplomb. I doubt Columbus could have done this. But is it worth it? I found it more befuddling than elucidating, plot-wise, with too much talk.
Cuarón's greatest moment in the film belongs to scenes between Harry and a computer-generated dinosaur-like beast called a hippogriff. The creature is neither excessively scary nor cutesy, and the scene leads to a soaring flight that we experience, too.
If only Prisoner of Azkaban soared more often. GRADE: C