Stephen King meets Charles Dickens in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," the third installment of the hugely popular serial. The franchise's eponymous hero, a teen who attends a boarding school for witches and wizards, is a winsome, bespectacled orphan who uses his powers only to fight evil -- a cross between Carrie and David Copperfield. Thus, he's the perfect embodiment of his young fans' deepest anxiety (being abandoned) and greatest desire (being all-powerful).
Then again, Peter Parker has those qualities too, and "Spider-Man" was a much better movie. In the interest of full disclosure, let it be said: This reviewer is not a Potterphile, has never cracked a Potter book or darkened the door of a theater playing one of the Potter movies. She went to this one cold, to see how it played simply as a movie-movie, unfettered by the bonds of hype, baggage and a mental checklist of Things Missing From the Movie That Were in the Book. And the result of this little experiment? She still doesn't get it.
At a little more than two hours, "The Prisoner of Azkaban" clocks in as the shortest of the three Potter movies, a fact that makes one's tushie tingle just contemplating it. Put delicately, this is one long sit, made all the more so by a turgid story, a dour visual palette and uninspiring action. No doubt those details are quite beside the point for fans, who eagerly, if not rabidly, await each chapter of their favorite long-running soap opera (they're like "Sopranos" fanatics, only nicer). They should be well pleased, for the film deepens, maybe even darkens, Harry's complicated family story and introduces some characters who promise to provide some spice and spark to future movies. As for the unconvinced friends and family those true believers may drag along with them, well, there's always Alan Rickman.
Rickman is just one of several supporting players who give "The Prisoner of Azkaban" periodic glints of wicked humor. He plays one of Harry's professors, Severus Snape, a mirthless martinet who can inspire fear and loathing just by droning, "Please open your books to page thrrrree-haundred-and-ninety-fooour." Good, too, are David Thewlis as a new teacher at Hogwarts School, Emma Thompson as the spacey divination teacher, and Michael Gambon, who replaces the late Richard Harris, as Dumbledore, Hogwarts's stern but kind headmaster. And special mention must go to Timothy Spall for being a good sport in a clever instance of anthropomorphic casting.
These veterans of the British stage and screen give "The Prisoner of Azkaban" lifeblood that can't be transfused through endless computer-generated effects, no matter how often director Alfonso Cuaron resorts to them. As in so many such spectacles, what are supposed to be dazzling set pieces here fall flat; the scene that got the biggest reaction at a recent screening was when Harry's friend Hermione (Emma Watson) sucker-punched the school bully.
"The brightest witch of her age," Hermione is clearly the star of the show here, far outshining Daniel Radcliffe's Harry P. in humor and spirit. She's even tougher than the Dementors (which uncannily resemble "The Wizard of Oz's" famous flying monkeys). These swooping banshees turn out to be more dangerous to Harry than the story's villain, the Prisoner of Azkaban himself. That last character, an escaped fugitive named Sirius Black, has vowed to come after Harry, and the Dementors -- who were Black's guards at Azkaban -- have been sent to Hogwarts to capture him. The problem is, they can't seem to discern between good guys and bad when they're flying around Harry and his fellow students, trying to suck out their souls by way of their faces.
Those scenes may be a little strong for young viewers, as might a sadistic execution of an innocent hippogriff (half horse, half griffin) and a brief but terrifying fight between a werewolf and a huge black dog. Indeed, the entire movie is filled with surprisingly dark and ambiguous material, as Harry comes to terms with his parents' deaths and learns whom he can and cannot trust. Cuaron, who directed "A Little Princess" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien," brings as much sophistication as he can to the proceedings, but he's hemmed in by J.K. Rowling's original novel; his main artistic decision seems to have been what to leave out of that hefty 435-page story.
What's surprising is how little verve Cuaron brings to the franchise. It's true that Hogwarts and its plashy fens are meant to evoke a grayer, more lugubrious era, but something more than a few oversize pumpkins by way of color wouldn't have hurt.
Still, there are a few arresting sights, such as the giant spider on roller skates that Harry and his schoolmates encounter while learning to face their fears, or the school's giant clock, one of Cuaron's frequent, and wistfully effective, allusions to time's passing. For those who have yet to succumb to the charms of Hogwarts' bumblequirks and weaselpeeps, that clock will only be a grim symbol of how slowly "The Prisoner of Azkaban" is proceeding. For the rest of the audience, it will no doubt serve as a bittersweet reminder that their beloved hero is growing up, and his story must eventually come to an end.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (136 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for frightening moments, creature violence and mild language.