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Harry Plodder 

Magic is often missing from third installment

Nobody could ever accuse director Chris Columbus of making art; most of the time, nobody could even accuse him of making good movies. But Columbus kept up his end when helping to bring the first two movies in the Harry Potter series to the screen. In helming 2001's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and 2002's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, he did all right by J.K. Rowlins' literary bonanza, crafting a pair of pictures that for the most part never allowed the technical aspects to overwhelm their primary source of delight: the endearing characters and the actors who ably portrayed them.

With Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third title in the series, Columbus decided to hand the reins over to Alfonso Cuaron (Columbus still retains a producer credit). Cuaron's resume all but guarantees he'll be given the free ride that Columbus never enjoyed: After all, he's responsible for such critical smashes as Y Tu Mama Tambien and A Little Princess while Columbus has yet to live down the shame of Bicentennial Man and subjecting us to several years of Macaulay Culkin via those infernal Home Alone flicks. Yet the cold, hard truth of the matter is that Cuaron's Potter at-bat, while far from a dud, is the weakest of the films to date.

It's Year Three for boy sorcerer Harry Potter (again played by Daniel Radcliffe) at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but the semester immediately takes on a somber tone once it's discovered that a criminal mastermind named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from prison and might be heading straight for the venerable institution of learning. Is he the one responsible for the deaths of Harry's parents, and is he now on his way to kill the boy as well? Harry takes measures to protect himself, but matters get so far out of hand that he must resort to time travel (as well as a little help from his friends) to set things straight and in the process learn a little more about his own mysterious past.

The early line was that Cuaron's picture would be by far the darkest of the trio, relying less on gee-whiz kid antics and casting a far grimmer spell over the proceedings. But that simply isn't the case. With ace art director Stuart Craig having designed all three installments, the visual look of the series has remained the same. And while the character of Harry has shucked much of his naivety and grown more testy and troubled over time, none of the other characters has evolved in any discernible way: Ron (Rupert Grint) is still affable and afraid; Hermione (Emma Watson) is still a brainy perfectionist; headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris) continues to offer sage advice; groundskeeper Hagrid (delightful Robbie Coltrane) remains a lovable oaf; and professors Snape (Alan Rickman) and Gonagall (Maggie Smith) each continue to berate the students in their own inimitable styles. Pressed to choose, I'd venture to say that the first sequel, Chamber of Secrets, had the darkest edge (for starters, it's hard to beat giant spiders when putting the fear of God into impressionable filmgoers).

I'd also suggest that neither of the previous pictures was as predictable as this one (screenwriter Steve Kloves adapted all three). Watching the earlier entries, it was often easy to forget that they were largely aimed at children, but with Azkaban, it's impossible to forget that fact. As one example, anybody over the age of 12 should quickly be able to guess the link between a savage werewolf on the premises and a professor with the spell-it-out name of Lupin. A new professor played by Emma Thompson is presented as ridiculously broad (ex-hubby Kenneth Branagh had more success with his overripe turn in Chamber), and the antics of rotten kid Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) have ceased to exude any menace and now merely seem like the temper tantrums of a petulant three-year-old.

Not having perused this installment in print, I can't say how many of the visual touches are based on descriptions from the book or were envisioned for the film by Cuaron and his crew; at any rate, too many of the additions are alarmingly unoriginal, a problem for an entry in a series that itself seems cribbed from other popular tales of fantasy. The Dementors, shrouded figures of doom, look exactly like the Ringwraiths from the Lord of the Rings pictures, while a winged creature known as Buckbeak bears a strong resemblance to a couple of Ray Harryhausen concoctions (including the griffin from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad). Even the opening sequence, set at the household of Harry's adopted family the Dursleys, concludes with a direct steal from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Still, despite its pitfalls, the movie can be recommended on the basis of a pair of considerable strengths. While the returning adult players are barely utilized (blink and you'll miss Maggie Smith), Radcliffe, Grint and Watson are again allowed to strut their stuff, and their interplay remains the primary reason that the series works as well as it does (Watson's role has especially been beefed up for this chapter, doubtless earning the thanks of pubescent boys across the globe). And while the first hour of this 135-minute yarn often drags, the second half -- with its rapidly escalating dangers and labyrinthine leaps in plot -- picks up some much-needed steam, leading to an extended episode that cleverly circles back on itself via the story's intelligent use of time travel decrees. It's a satisfying conclusion after a rough ride, and with any luck, this upward mobility will continue into the fourth installment of this insatiable money machine.

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