<I>HP3</I>: Darker, more Sirius

The big news about HP3, or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is that its "13-year-old wizards" have managed to avoid the onset of adolescence one more time, even as the world around them grows up and turns darker.

So if you thought they brought in Alfonso Cuarón, director of Y tu Mama Tambien, to engineer a similar erotic triangle involving Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson)... you've got a dirty mind.

When Ron and Hermione touch hands briefly, they pull away immediately. When Harry and Hermione go time traveling together, they're as brother-and-sisterly as Luke and Leia. (Sorry, bad example.) And when Harry and Ron get it on, it's just because they're drunk. (Okay, I made up that last part.)

HP3 opens with a comic scene in which Harry's vicious aunt disses his late parents and he goes Carrie on her, supersizes her, then leaves home: "Anywhere is better than this." He's picked up by the Knight Bus and given a wild ride through the world of Muggles to the Leaky Cauldron, where he hooks up with his chums for the train ride to Hogwarts.

The man they share a compartment with turns out to be their new professor, Remis Lupin (David Thewlis), who teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts. He saves Harry from an attack by a soul-sucking Dementor, one of several coming to guard Hogwarts from Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a convicted murderer who has escaped from the wizards' prison at Azkaban after 12 years.

Black is thought to have killed Harry's parents and to be coming after Harry, so it looks as if the young orphan is going to get some kind of closure in this episode.

At school Michael Gambon has replaced the late Richard Harris as Prof. Dumbledore. Profs. Snape (Alan Rickman) and McGonagall (Maggie Smith) are still around, joined by Profs. Lupin and Trelawney (Emma Thompson, acting far more than necessary when the wig and glasses do it for her); and our old friend Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), who teaches a course in monsters.

Hagrid brings a hippogriff to class and this computer generated flying horse– or is it a bird with four legs?– plays a major role in the story. There's another Quidditch match, this time in a thunderstorm, but it's cut short when the Dementors interfere.

Among the students, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is still a jerk, but gets shot down or punched out like a cartoon villain whenever he causes trouble.

Aside from appearing on wanted posters, Sirius Black doesn't show up until 90 minutes into the film, when he and Lupin start "quarreling like an old married couple," as Snape puts it.

Several preconceptions change rather abruptly as we learn the true nature of some characters. One of these "surprises" should have been obvious from the person's name.

By this time, the three leading youngsters have become so firmly set in our minds as their characters, there's no question of whether they can act: we just accept them. Of the three, Watson shows the most growth from one film to the next, but that may just be a case of girls growing up faster than boys. We'll see what happens when/if their hormones kick in the next episode.

Cuarón stays pretty much within the established parameters so that while the subject matter takes a darker turn, there's no great shift in the overall style. There's still plenty of activity all over the screen involving gimmicks old and new. Among the latter is the animated "Marauders' Map," which shows the location of everyone at Hogwarts and also provides a template for the closing credits– all 12 minutes of them.

If you had no preference between the first two films in the series, you will definitely like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban more or less than those two. I liked it less, but that doesn't mean I disliked it. It's not as Potterrific as the others, but it's far from Potterrible.