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2.5 out of 4 stars


Harry Potter

and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

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Written by Steve Kloves

Starring Daniel Radcliffe,

Emma Watson, Rupert Grint,

David Thewlis, Emma Thompson

Classification: PG

Rating: **½

The hope: that nothing becomes an old franchise like a new director. Hope rising: In the very first frames, new director Alfonso Cuaron - the arty Mexican who explored youthful hormones with gleeful zest in Y Tu Mama Tambien - eases his camera through the pitch black night and into the darkened bedroom of Harry Potter who, a card-carrying teenager now, is seen huddled under the covers with one shadowy hand engaged in a clearly furtive activity, and - say it isn't so - could it be that our little wizard is playing with his wand? Hope dimmed: Alas, it is literally so - our little wizard is playing with his wand. Again.

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Nope, that opening gag may be on the saucy side, but don't expect Cuaron to stir any truly hot tamales into J. K. Rowling's recipe for success. Neither she, nor her books' legions of devoted readers, would stand for such pernicious tampering. That's not to suggest Cuaron, who took over from the faithful if pedestrian Chris Columbus, hasn't put his own stamp on the series' third instalment. This chapter has an entirely different look - gone are the faux Victorian touches, in with a vengeance are the moody Gothic elements.

Whereas Columbus took a gander at the orphaned Harry and saw a Dickensian hero packed off to a snooty boarding school, Cuaron heads straight into the shadows. Instead of Copperfield and class, he sees castles and monsters - dark castles, multiple monsters. Folks who like their kiddie flicks to be primarily visual, drenched in atmosphere and garlanded in style, will applaud the changes. Those who prefer an engaging narrative and developed characters will not. This superannuated kid does not. From my doddering perspective - rheumy with a view - Volume 3 puts plenty of cinema into the picture but leeches all the charm out of the tale.

After that naughty giggle in the opening frame, and before the Gothic trappings get firmly appliquéd, the early scenes allow us to regain our Potter bearings by recycling some familiar tropes. Once more, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) gets tormented by his Muggle guardians; this time, his teeny self rebels and, with a practised flick of that wand, he inflates an already puffy aunt to Goodyear proportions, then floats her off into the blue yonder. Sayonara Colonel Blimp.

Cue the usual bizarre conveyance that transports our lad out of Muggle-land and toward the Hogwarts Academy - neither train nor flying car here, but a magical mystery bus three-decks high (yep, more is less). Of course, this leads to the proverbial reunion with his bosom pals, Ronald (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), who are themselves showing signs of hormonal eruption - she's armed with a training bra for this campaign, and keeps shooting amorous glances in Ron's receptive direction.

Meanwhile, the faculty are assembled as always, in roles seemingly designed to provide gainful if cameo employment to half the British acting community - Alan Rickman's Snape, Maggie Smith's McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane's Hagrid, Michael Gambon's Dumbledore (Gambon replaces the late Richard Harris, although - wigged and costumed as he is - you'll barely notice the change).

You will, however, spot the directorial touches at this stage. Hogwarts has become a decidedly creepier place, as if it got spirited out of England and plunked down somewhere in Transylvania. Cuaron repeatedly employs a wide-angle lens to deepen the spooky atmosphere, and has a further habit of angling sharp objects directly at the camera, creating a kind of ersatz 3-D effect.

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The purpose? Perhaps to cash in on the film's further release in IMAX theatres. The result? Less visually dazzling than inadvertently comic. As for the deliberate comedy, Emma Thompson pops up as a jabbering sorcerer with a PhD in the neglected field of tea-leaf divination; what's more, she's equipped with her own wide-angle lens - a pair of Coke-bottle glasses that make her eyes bulge out like blue pop tarts on an ivory saucer. On the dramatic half of the ledger, the always compelling David Thewlis is a welcome addition in the friendly personage of Professor Lupin. Well, apparently friendly - in that lupine surname, Latin students will hear the promise of a plot-turn whenever the full moon comes out.

Actually, its devilish plot-turns are the movie's undoing. First, they're not devilish enough - this chapter lacks a singular villain. Timothy Spall and Gary Oldman put in a bid, and given his character's moniker - Sirius Black - you'd figure the smart money would be on Oldman's efforts. But (and here's the second problem) the narrative twists keep undercutting the villainy, adding dollops of grey to the moral universe. Now you'd think this would be a commendable advancement on the usual white hat/black hat scenario; unfortunately, the grey areas come to seem more confusing than complicating. Frankly, as the abrupt end nears, the yarn is hard to follow without the help of a cheat sheet - preferably, a 10-year old keener steeped in the tomes.

Consequently, in a series that's episodic by definition, too many of these episodes lack any climax or payoff. Cuaron compensates with his visual flourishes - like the ghostly presence of the Dementors, a squad of spectral security guards with soul-sucking talents. Or like the sight of Harry in mid-ascent on the back of the Hippogriff, a newly-minted beast that's half-horse and half-eagle and, as seen in soaring flight, all-thrills. But another aerial sequence, the de rigueur game of quidditch, is a lot less successful. Shot among leaden clouds and drenched in noirish rain, this one scene captures the ongoing trade-off of the whole movie - brightness and clarity sacrificed on the altar of atmosphere and mood.

More to the point, though, these franchises are all subject to the law of diminishing returns. The first flick off the line starts as a cultural phenomenon, the next gets downgraded to a cultural event, and the rest soon slip into the ritualized haze of a cultural habit - the kind that die hard, the kind that play to die-hards. Now ritual is reassuring, and even profitable, but exciting it ain't - there's just no magic in old habits.

Potter's past adventures

Harry Potter and

the Philosopher's Stone

Released: Nov. 16, 2001

Worldwide box-office sales: $976,475,550

Production budget: $125-million The Globe's rating: ***

Rick Groen's take: "The cast were in their element and the money was on the screen - in the vintage train and the idiosyncratic school and the costumes and the monsters and in the special effects that mimic the wand-waving magic."

Harry Potter and

the Chamber of Secrets

Released: Nov. 15, 2002

Worldwide box-office sales: $876,688,448

Production budget: $100-million The Globe's rating: ***

Rick Groen's take: "It's a film that will serve the Potter franchise well, that will not disappoint either youngsters or their parents, and that bears the markings of its solid studio craftsmanship - worthy performances, credible effects, competent direction. However, despite such stalwart craft, there's a missing element whose absence, forgive me, I can't help but lament. This is a movie about magic that ultimately lacks the magic of movies."

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