Much like a child going through puberty, the maturation of the Harry Potter franchise has yielded awkward growing pains for the third film in the series. Visually dazzling and considerably darker than the prior incarnations, the story suffers from a slightly disjointed feel that will prove less accessible to those not intimately familiar with every corner of author J.K. Rowling’s world. Pent-up demand after an 18-month hiatus should ensure magical returns initially, but the unwieldy elements make it less likely Warner Bros. can conjure up the kind of box office staying power exhibited by the “Potter” predecessors.
On paper, Alfonso Cuaron represented an inspired choice to inherit the series — his most salient credit being not indie darling “Y tu mama tambien” but rather his radiant 1995 children’s story “A Little Princess.” In terms of style, the director immediately puts his stamp on the material by delivering a bold shift in the film’s color palette, using muted, washed-out tones that help capture a sense of wonder and foreboding.
The problem is that both the narrative and Cuaron’s flourishes mark a rather stark departure from Chris Columbus’ approach of closely adhering to the books, which played better with children than this film is apt to while still appealing to adults. Notably lacking is the sort of action-oriented climax that punctuated the earlier films, as “Prisoner of Azkaban” closes with a cerebral time-traveling interlude that nearly requires a crash-course in “Terminator” logic.
Rowling’s ever-growing novels have exacerbated the adaptation process for Cuaron and writer Steve Kloves (who has scripted all three films), demanding tough choices in terms of what to keep and what to throw away. And while Potter aficionados should be able to knot the story strands, others might find the connections a bit fuzzy.
Entering his third year at Hogwarts school for budding wizards, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) once again is found with his disapproving Muggle family, the Dursleys, exacting magical vengeance on an unwelcome guest who winds up resembling Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life.”
Soon, Harry is whisked back to school, en route learning of the escape of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) — a criminal jailed for a dozen years in the prison of Azkaban for having conspired with the dreaded Lord Voldemort to do in Harry’s parents.
The story takes some time reassembling familiar faces, from Harry’s buddies Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) to nemesis Malfoy (Tom Felton) and his entourage, all of whom display signs of growing older in varying (and not always flattering) degrees.
The cast additions include the latest teacher of defense against the Dark Arts, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), and a slightly daft professor of divination played by Emma Thompson, who dives in with relish behind finger-thick glasses.
Another key addition is only a new face of sorts, as Michael Gambon replaces the late Richard Harris as Harry’s mentor, Albus Dumbledore, providing a somewhat less warm and avuncular presence.
Unfortunately, beyond the threat posed by Black’s inevitable return, the pic is lacking in a strong through-line. Ghastly creatures called Dementors are unleashed to capture the fugitive, and a werewolf is on the loose. Meanwhile, the giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) introduces students to a Hippogriff — a Harryhausen-esque eagle-horse hybrid whose soaring feats represent the film’s artistic apex.
Clearly, there’s laudable ambition in wedding a director like Cuaron with a large-scale summer entertainment, but the Potter mythology — from the assortment of characters that require servicing to the sometimes-confounding rules of wizardry — tie his hands to an extent. In a sense, each new layer tacked on complicates the juggling act, even with a less rigid and literal devotion to the source than Columbus employed.
What emerges, then, has its thrilling and even beautiful moments but never quite coalesces into a fully realized story. As such, “Prisoner of Azkaban” is actually the shortest of the three films, yet at times feels like the longest.
That’s no fault of the talented young performers, who are ably growing up with their pubescent characters, including Ron’s growing discomfort around Hermione. Thewlis is also fine as the most prominently featured adult, while Oldman does what he can with relatively scant screen time.
Once again, the production is technically superior, with the grimmer tone reflected even in John Williams’ score, which seems to heighten the sense of menace in its elfin theme. The one disappointment comes in the form of the werewolf, a gangly apparition that looks more cartoonish, and less fearsome, than it ought to be.
With a sixth “Harry Potter” novel still to come, there’s hardly a danger of the franchise disappearing. And while there’s no pleasure in seeing a studio possibly penalized, in essence, for setting its creative sights higher than might have been anticipated, “The Prisoner of Azkaban” could provide a reminder of the pitfalls in that strategy — namely, that adjusting one’s aim also risks not quite hitting the target.