Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

There’s not much to say about the third Harry Potter movie that hasn’t been said many times over in every newspaper in the country. This is one of the blockbusters of the summer, number one in box office sales as I write. This installment, with a new director, Alfonso Cuaron, is supposed to be more serious, more adult.

But, just to rehearse, it’s a story about a lost boy in search of himself. His discoveries unfold at Hogwarts, a rambling, secret school for wizards and witches. Now 13 years old, Harry (Daniel Radcliff) is bouyed by helpful teachers, beset by obstructive foster parents, aided by magical helpers and a sweet snowy owl, and attacked by malevolent forces. All this takes place on the vertical slopes of Scottish mountains, teetering on the edge of frigid lochs.

Unlike the violence and bloodshed in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the pain in “The Prisoner of Azkaban” is almost all psychological, as Harry tries to comprehend the workings of an adult wizard bureaucracy that manipulates his reality in confusing ways. Representatives of the Ministry of Magic tell him a series of lies as he tries to uncover the truth about the death of his parents. They say he should especially fear the murderous Sirius Black, escaped from dreaded Azkaban. Or should he? There are moments open to broad Freudian interpretation, as Harry tries to muddle through lies and dreams to the truth. He learns to control his wand, his wizard’s broom is broken and mysteriously replaced by a more adult model, and he discovers his dead father’s spectral power is really his own self. But the psychological tension is never extreme, perhaps because the writers and directors are saving the presence of heavy evil for the next installment. J. K. Rowling is not Henry James, but neither is she Michael Eisner.

There’s more fun here for adults than in the Lord of the Rings. (Pace, Ring fanatics.) The actors aren’t just beefcake or eye candy: There’s TV detective Robbie Coltrane (“Cracker”) on stilts as Hagrid the tenderhearted giant. If you think that’s Julie Christie flitting by in an eyelash of a part — well, it is Julie Christie. Emma Thompson is over-the-top as Trelawney, an instructor of divination with lots of channels but lousy reception. In the book, fraudulent Professor Trelawney is satisfyingly unmasked but here, sad to say, she gets away with all of it. Alan Rickman is a wonderfully conflicted Severus Snape, caught between his envious Id and needing to do the right thing. The most painful and appealing character, though, is kind Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), who teaches Defense against the Dark Arts. This would be the most popular course at any school and also the most useful, since Lupin offers practical instruction in facing down one’s worst fears.

Like Rowling, the filmmakers (especially writer, Steve Kloves) have gone out of their way to satisfy the girls in the theatre. Compare Emma Watson’s feisty Hermione to Liv Tyler crossing her eyes and wasting away in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and you get a clue how differently the audience has been imagined (or researched). Hermione is fully Harry’s equal in their circle of friends, and she’s his intellectual superior. When she delivers a crosscut to Draco Malfoy’s jaw, she says “That felt really good!” Snotty Malfoy is a one-dimensional rich-boy target, but it does feel good. It feels brilliant.

What’s unsettling about “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is how hard it is to tell movie from memory. Given the volume of Harry Potter products that have washed across our consciousness in the last seven years, it’s nearly impossible to see it with fresh eyes, or ever be surprised. Even if you’ve never opened one of the books, seen one of the two previous movies, or listened to the stories on tape, chances are good that you know something of the complex serial plot and elaborate cast of characters. It’s kind of like the “General Hospital” craze in the late 1970s, when you couldn’t meet anyone who’d never heard of Luke and Laura. Remember the intricate graphs tracing their loves, breakups, kidnappings, betrayals, and marriages to other lovers? The Harry Potter phenomenon is a lot like that only more so. Let’s hope no new Demi Moore graduates Hogwarts.

To take a bunch of 11-year-old boys to see “Harry and the Prisoner” is an experience, but to listen to them talk about it on the way home is to feel the intense force of JK Rowling’s kid-lit empire. They work as hard as Talmudic scholars, tracing the relationships between texts.

Which passages of the book were cut short due to film demands? Well, the parts with Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia, for sure. But what a job of inflating Aunt Marge! Are the Weasly boys really twins in the book? I don’t think so. Shouldn’t Harry have been punished for using his magic on a teacher? Yes, and that is a major problem. Can anyone ever replace the great Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore? Oh, yes, Michael Gambon was a real Dumbledore. Didn’t the sets look darker and dirtier? Did special effects create a good or only passing hippogriff? (I think the special effects folks created a fantastic crossbred horse/falcon monster, and they did pretty well with the razortoothed textbooks, too.) Wasn’t the whomping willow much more vicious this time?

“I don’t think the director likes quidditch much,” my son said, sounding suspiciously like movie reviewer A. O. Scott. When did you start reading the New York Times? “I read the New York Times, Mom.”

And what does “Expelliarmus” mean? “It’s wizard for “Get outta here!”

SUSAN DAVIS teaches at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.