It's been slightly over a year and half since the release of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets -- a long time for fans who have been waiting with hands clasped to see how the next installment of stories about the heroes and villains and creatures of Potterworld would come across onscreen.
And despite some gaping flaws, most hardcore fans are going to be tickled. The core of the third book is here, although certain events have had their order changed, and many details have been omitted.
As most followers had suspected, this film turns out to be by far the darkest of the three. It starts off in fine humor -- a sequence about a visit from nasty Aunt Marge to the home of Harry's annoying guardians results in a nod to the Three Stooges short Dizzy Pilots, in which Moe "floats away." But soon after, when Harry gets his first sighting of a big black dog -- or is it a wolf? -- the film's creepiness starts to build.
The story has him running away from Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia, hopping on a careening "night bus" that brings him to the Leaky Cauldron tavern, and reuniting with his school pals before an eventful train ride back to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
An explanation of the secondary title character comes relatively quickly: Said prisoner is Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), an escapee of the impossible-to-escape-from Azkaban. He's a once-powerful wizard who is now looking for Harry and planning to do away with the renowned lad in order to get his powers back. Harry knows this, his friends know it, everyone at Hogwarts knows it.
What no one knows, at first, is that the long, graceful, malevolent flying creatures called Dementors (brilliantly realized as visual effects) are looking for Sirius -- but might have some interest in Harry too. But before much else can be explained about them, the kids arrive at school, where everything is the same: floating candles, talking pictures and classes that seem to be a lot more fun than work.
But there are additions to this film. Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) is still his jolly self, but he's been promoted to teacher status. New characters include Professor Lupin (a remarkably effective and uncharacteristic low-key performance by David Thewlis) and Professor Trelawney (a goofy presentation by Emma Thompson in Coke-bottle glasses). As far as old acquaintances, Professor Snape (Alan Rickman, with even more gusto, right down to the flair of his nostrils) is more slippery than ever, and Headmaster Dumbledore (now played, with eyes slightly less twinkly, by Michael Gambon, of The Cook, the Thief fame) still rules with a velvet fist.
The plot has the Dementors hovering outside the school, and the escaped convict making his way closer, but there's always room for a little slapstick (the "Book of Monsters" likes to tear chunks of clothing from unsuspecting students) and some eye-popping visuals (Harry's first ride on Buckbeak, the Hippogryph -- a sort of cross between a chicken and a horse, is thrilling, breathtaking movie magic). Yet the film also crosses the line of offering too many effects. As in its predecessor, there's a quidditch match for no apparent reason other than to have a quidditch match. A much better, and far more subtle addition to the film is the idea of filling the sky with birds fluttering all over the place.
New areas of the ongoing story that ring true include presenting Harry as someone who's becoming a little angrier at the world around him -- even making it clear that he's ready to kill Sirius Black. And something is definitely going on between Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). It's not the tension caused by what her cat might have done to his missing rat; it's more of the slight crackle of electricity that occurs when their hands touch. It's easy to read her feelings toward cowardly Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), when she calls him a "foul, loathsome, evil little cockroach." But is there something more than a friendly relationship forming between her and Ron?
That question will most likely be answered in the next film. But there are other questions that need answering right here in this one. Alas, they're not, and that proves to be detrimental to full enjoyment. The blame must go to author J.K. Rowling for setting up certain characters and scenes that turn convoluted when they should be clear. By the time Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall) makes his appearance, it's well-nigh impossible to tell who, among the non-student characters, is good and who is evil. To make matters worse, some of them seem to change allegiances practically in mid sentence. The confusion that sets in will likely tear viewers from the mood of the film, and by the end, although some fascinating storytelling has been presented, much of the film collapses under the weight of confusion. It's a good film, but not, as one would hope, a great one.