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SIMPLY SPELLBINDING

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, director Alfonso Cuaron has wrought a wondrous fantasy that's light on its feet and full of heart. This movie targets the funny bone and tingles the spine. Maybe the prosaic doggedness of the first two Harry Potter films (directed by Chris Columbus) was necessary to prime the books' fans for the bop, boogie and ballet of the third.

Must you know the entire saga before you can soar with this picture's flights of action poetry or dance to its zesty narrative rhythms? Not really - just the basics.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), the orphan son of wizards, still spends the summer with his grotesquely stuffy nonwizard aunt and uncle. They put him down at every turn despite his renown in the magic world for withstanding the dreaded Lord Voldemort (aka "You-Know-Who") ever since that paragon of evil killed Harry's parents.

In this third of a projected seven installments, the major menace is the renegade sorcerer Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), Voldemort's presumed successor, who escaped from Azkaban prison and tracks Harry all the way into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But Harry's more immediate threats are "dementors": Grim Reaper-like creatures from Azkaban who are supposed to protect Hogwarts students from Black but instead threaten to suck the soul right out of Harry.

Harry's blue-eyed soul in all its comical, touching glory is what this Potter adventure is about.

From the opening scenes of Harry in the purgatory of Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon's house, director Cuaron and his screenwriter, Steve Kloves, place you behind this growing boy's spectacles with an ease that is ticklish and mind-opening. The perfect slapstick timing, the droll performances from Richard E. Griffiths and Fiona Shaw (as Vernon and Petunia Dursley), Harry Melling (as their son Dudley) and Pam Ferris as another awful relative, Aunt Marge, and the offhand virtuosity of the special effects contribute to making this introductory sequence a coup. But the key to its success is Cuaron's intuitive genius for putting himself on an adolescent wavelength (as he did in the vastly different, sexually charged Y Tu Mama Tambien).

Harry has entered that awkward age, 13, when taught behavior and instinct battle beneath the skin, and righteous anger must explode. Harry's inability to control his wrath propels him out onto the street where a wolf-like dog menaces him before the Knight Bus comes and zooms him to the witch-and-wizard heart of London, Diagon Alley.

The appearance of that Knight Bus - a super-flexible vehicle, filled with beds instead of benches - may save Harry's hide. But it also plunges him into a world of confused identities and unfathomable dangers. Even Harry pretends to be someone else when he boards the bus. Of course, Harry isn't sure of who he is and what he's capable of when he travels under his real name.

In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry gets to know more about himself as he learns more about his parents. He acquires a firmer grip on the world when he sees that adults are as complex (or simple) as children and just as prone to dissembling and japery (or perilous rigidity). Harry must keep his wits about him while he and everyone around him appear to be transforming (or standing unnaturally still). Think of the movie as a black-comic version of Kipling's If done as a musical round for Harry and his best friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson).

Give Columbus credit for casting these young actors: They've grown into resourceful and magnetic performers. Radcliffe sounds unexpected depths of rage, remorse and euphoria, while Grint turns growing pains into comic grist and Watson displays the focused power of a heartbreaker-in-the-making.

The most important new character, seedy Professor Lupin, played with miraculous warmth by David Thewlis, loved Harry's empathic, generous mother Lily and troublemaking father James, and takes Harry under his own ragged wing. Lupin instructs his pupils on how to defuse the power of "boggarts": shape-shifters that assume the forms of their victims' worst fears. The young wizards learn that they can undercut the boggarts by re-imagining their private phobias in ridiculous shapes and then shouting the magic word "Riddikulus!" Lupin later teaches Harry that he can deflect the soul-draining kiss of the dementors if he hangs on to a vivid life-affirming memory and pronounces a white-magic incantation. Yet positive or creative thinking doesn't always alter a harsh fate. Harry's parents are pertinent examples, and so are Black and Lupin.

Life (and death) and transfiguration is the movie's theme, and Cuaron and Kloves play it out in every possible permutation. So it makes poetic sense that Headmaster Dumbledore changes from the late Richard Harris to Michael Gambon, who brings the role a fresh charge of benign deviltry. There's also a werewolf who can't help transforming from man to monster by the light of the full moon, and "Animagi" who choose to take on animal forms. And there's flighty Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson), who views existence through a cloudy crystal ball and becomes an entirely different, concentrated person when she has a genuine vision.

Others, like rock-solid animal-lover Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and glowering Harry-doubter Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), get into trouble or get things wrong because they can't alter mental habits. All three performers are superb comedians here - Thompson with eyeglasses like periscopes and a voice like a cracked woodwind, Coltrane with a peerless satiric use of his own massiveness, and Rickman with his hilarious monomaniac stare. To take in all these characters, and keep them both "real" and relaxed, Cuaron frames them in wide angles and gives the audience the illusion of life skittering beyond the limits of the frame.

No director has ever made more casual and well-timed use of special effects. There's alchemy in the mobile detail-work, such as the animated Sirius Black "Wanted" posters and the kinetic paintings that line the Hogwarts walls and the knight that keeps crashing into Hogwarts' grand hall. There are sustained blasts of wit, such as a sequence set in the all-wizard town of Hogsmeade, which encapsulates The Nightmare Before Christmas in five minutes.

Cuaron's visualization of the half-horse, half-eagle hippogriff is a pinnacle of movie magic. When Harry rides the creature through the air and it races its talons across the surface of a lake, the director achieves with special effects what Carroll Ballard did with natural beauty in the island scenes of The Black Stallion. Kloves' script is polished and compressed - a diamond out of the rough. The way he and Cuaron handle a trick time-hopping climax puts art house hits like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to shame.

The Prisoner of Azkaban is to Harry Potter what that other No. 3, Goldfinger, was to James Bond: the movie that takes the invention and gamesmanship of the series to a whole new giddy peak.

Harry Potter

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, David Thewlis and Emma Thompson

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Rated PG

Released by Warner Bros.

Time 142 minutes

Sun Score ****

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