Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Akzaban is another literal and fairly successful translation of a J.K. Rowling novel to the screen. If you liked the first two Harry Potter movies, you'll like this one too, especially since this third movie is different enough from the first two so as not to be formulaic.
Prisoner certainly does not follow the advice of the many film critics who hoped that as the movie series progressed, the screenplay and direction would offer new interpretations, rather than straightforward transcriptions. Sorry, critics; the immense audience that knows the Potter series inside-out wouldn't tolerate deviations or inventions.
Of course the movie eliminates many subplots, but most of the actual changes from the book are trivial. For example, Hagrid's "Care of Magical Creatures Class" features only a single hippogriff, rather than several. Hermione punches Malfoy instead of slapping him.
Visually, however, Prisoner departs completely from the first two movies. Cinematographer Michael Seresin (Angela's Ashes, Midnight Express) is new to the series, and he favors grainy shots using contrasts with various shades of black and white. Much of the cinematography comments on the plot, which involves people who are not what they seem to be.
Seresin doesn't turn Prisoner into nouveau Hitchcock, but the movie does have a much more artiste sensibility than its predecessors. The cinematography will help the movie bear repeated viewings, which are unavoidable for most families who own a DVD or VCR.
Prisoner's other important visual innovation, however, is terrible. Costume designer Jany Tamime (a/k/a Jany Van Hellenberg-Hubar) frequently outfits Harry, Ron, and Hermione in Mugglewear. As a result, some of the adventure scenes in the woods near Hogwarts lose some of their magic, and instead feature action poses which look like every other clichéd teen adventure movie. The Muggle clothing may satisfy viewers who want to see Hermione (Emma Watson) in something tighter than a wizard's robe, but the outfits intrude on the magical world.
Watson and Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) reprise their strong performances from Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets. One of the biggest losses, however, in the movie adaptation is the near-disappearance of Harry's inner life. In the Prisoner book, Harry is tormented by his fears of being expelled from Hogwarts, after he breaks wizard law by turning his nasty Aunt Marge into a piggish balloon.
Likewise missing is the tortuous development of Harry's relationship with his godfather Sirius Black—a process which takes months in the book, but only a single night in the movie.
Most importantly, the movie loses a crucial element in the movie's main overt conflict, between Harry and the soul-sucking Dementors. When under a Dementor's influence, a person relives his worst memories; in the book, Harry sometimes succumbs to the Dementors because they make him remember the murder of his parents when he was a baby. Having lost all conscious memory his parents, Harry longs for the moments when he can see his parents alive—even as they are being murdered. The Prisoner book was the most psychologically complex of the series, and almost none of this complexity make it onto the screen.
Rupert Grint as Harry's best friend Ron Weasley delivers an even worse performance than his one-dimensional showing in the second movie. He mugs fear and incomprehension as if he were in a minstrel show. Within the four corners of the movie, it's difficult to see why Harry and Hermione like Ron so much.
Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy added a great deal to the prior movies. He has visibly grown up quite a lot, but unfortunately he's a much more minor character this time around. Strong new characters are the ratty Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall) and Professor Archibald Lupin, portrayed by David Thewlis as a traditional English boarding school teacher.
The special effects are, as always, charming and superb. The animated medieval and renaissance paintings which cover the Hogwarts walls turn are excellent, and so is the textbook The Monster Book of Monsters. The latter bears a cover typography which pays tribute to the Dungeons & Dragons monster manuals.
With so much plot to cover in 142 minutes, Prisoner wisely cuts Quidditch nearly to the vanishing point. Once the final battle is over, Prisoner wraps up quickly, rather than imitating its predecessors with long scenes in the dining hall, in which mass applause from the students attempted to stimulate applause from the audience.
Movie critics sometimes offer preposterous praise for a film, hoping to be quoted in the film's ads, and thereby garner themselves publicity. It doesn't get much more outlandish than one third-tier critic's claim, quoted in the Harry Potter print advertising, that Prisoner of Azkaban is one of the best films ever made. But judging by the annoying long previews which preceded the film, displaying a half-dozen of the major children's films which will be released between now and Christmas, Prisoner is far superior to anything you can take your kids to see for the rest of the year. As Jack Nicholson wondered, in another film, this really is "as good as it gets." At least until New Year's.