Please don't think the hand-held camera at the start of the third Harry Potter movie means that the franchise is off to a shaky start. It's just the opposite. You're in comfortable hands. They belong to the Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, who made the luscious hormonal road flick "Y Tu Mama Tambien'' and an overlooked version of "Great Expectations.'' Appropriately, this "Potter'' is the first to allow the books' Dickensian nature to flourish. Right away, Cuaron makes it clear that he plans to bring a whiff of cinema to the Warner Bros. franchise, an act of mercy that should make him a candidate for sainthood.
"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban'' is widely recognized as the darkest and most frightening of J. K. Rowling's five mega-selling books about the orphaned wunderkind wizard. The film is generously dusted with the magic and witchcraft that had gone missing from the two previous installments, which were like a pair of endless theme parks, all doped on obstacle courses, effects, and games.
You must be a little taller to ride "Azkaban.'' But once aboard, you'll be surprised by how little the film feels like a contraption. It's far less self-conscious about how to please an audience and isn't as slavishly interactive with its source material. Cuaron just asks that you sit back and let him carry you away.
The story concerns the escape of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the eponymous, murderous inmate, from Azkaban prison. He's looking for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), who's run away from his aunt and uncle's just in time for his third year at Hogwarts, the school for witchcraft and wizardry. All of non-Muggle England is on high alert, and since Black was heard muttering something about Hogwarts in his sleep, the school now needs security, which comes in the form of the Dementors, towering phantasms that will stand guard, but at a cost. Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) warns that Dementors ``will not distinguish between the ones they hunt and the ones who get in the way.''
As if the excitement of a dangerous fugitive weren't enough, Harry and his pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) have new teachers, among them a divination guru, whom Emma Thompson plays as a prescient but batty hippie, and Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), the dodgy expert on defense against the dark arts. Both prove useful allies and intriguing plot thickeners, particularly Lupin, who has a hairy secret of his own.
The closer Sirius gets, the more passionately Harry wants to solve the mystery of his parents' murders. Naturally, the prisoner had something to do with them, but what?
Since half a zillion people will enter the movie theater fully aware of what, it's here that Cuaron's eye for visual detail and character comes in handy. Director Chris Columbus made the first two Harry Potter installments, ``The Sorcerer's Stone'' and ``The Chamber of Secrets,'' to please readers of the book, and indeed, Steve Kloves, who performed the adaptations, was nothing if not faithful in the telling. But the life had been effectively sapped from the movies. I hadn't read either installment, but the films were so exhaustive and exhausting that I didn't feel I needed to. They came alive only around Harry's quidditch matches and Watson's plucky Hermione.
To be fair, ``The Prisoner of Azkaban'' is the best and most complicated story of the three. But there's something interpretive about this movie, too. The screenplay here is also by Kloves, and he and Cuaron finally bring the kids to teenage life and give this world a sweeping sense of danger and social paranoia. It's hard to watch the relentless Dementors curtailing liberties both at Hogwarts and in the surrounding country and not think about the current occupation of Iraq. The palpable sense of doom feels modern and real.
Where Columbus seemed content to push the movie forward with effects and John Williams's runaway score, Cuaron is decidedly less linear in his approach, playing, where he can, with time and with space. The ``wanted'' posters of Sirius Black, for instance, hang in three dimensions, with Oldman's crazed mug shot howling in an endless silent loop. And the film's most astounding sequence, in which Harry and the invaluable Hermione jump into a time loop themselves, is saved for the end. It's a passage as good as, not to mention more lucid than, the best parts of ``Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.''
Amid all the darkness, the film is also stocked with felicities great and small. For one thing, Hogwarts seems to have enrolled a lot more blacks and South Asians, and some of them have lines! Elsewhere, the young witches and wizards get to wear street clothes, and they finally look cool in their uniforms. (Thank costumer Jany Temime for that.)
It's also raining British actors. Alan Rickman, as the insufferable Professor Snape, has a terrific scene storming histrionically into Lupin's classroom. Robbie Coltrane is back as the gentle giant Hagrid. And Michael Gambon replaces the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore, and his wise but gently soused air confirms that Harris could indeed be impersonated. Julie Christie even shows up, ageless as ever, playing a pub mistress.
Radcliffe, who played Potter so dutifully in the first two movies, seems to have come into his own. He appears to be on the cusp of gangliness and hormones, and this is the movie where he transitions into an actor's body. This Harry is often furious and pained. In the opening scene, the boy comes close to a nuclear meltdown, shivering as he turns his rude Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) into a blimp at the dinner table. As she swells and sails into the stratosphere, Harry stands back helpless with anger and awe. He could be Sissy Spacek's Carrie at the end of the prom.
Neither Harry's dark side nor the book's scares Cuaron, who uses them to deepen the proceedings. He's a visionary and crafty storyteller who rewards your patience, not with twists in the plot, though the movie has its share, but with pure feeling. Deploying wit, grace, and artistry, he's whisked a kid flick into adolescence.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Directed by: Alfonso Cuar´on
Written by: Steve Kloves, based on the book by J. K. Rowling
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, David Thewlis, Michael
Gambon, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs
Running time: 135 minutes
Rated: PG (frightening moments, creature violence, and mild language)