He's Got the Magic Stick 

“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” casts a familiar spell.

We meet Harry in this episode much the same way we do in the first, bullied by a loutish foster family and longing for escape. After a hurried episode of humiliation and revenge, he is spirited back to school for another round of adventures. (You know you’re watching a fantasy movie when adolescent boys sit around a dorm room and don’t talk about sex.)

In the Potter films, events outside the school are clunky preludes to the real magic, the banishment of storytelling in favor of purely visual enchantment. In this aspect “The Prisoner of Azkaban” soars as high as Harry on his flying broomstick. The editing is sharp, the pacing is lively and the filmmakers opt for comic relief rather than syrupy emotion during moments of transition.

Director Alfonso Cuar¢n (“Y tu Mama Tambien”), perhaps tired of the novelty of CGI scenery, doesn’t linger over his fantastic creations – they’re mercifully brief. In all it’s a much less tedious affair than the “Lord of the Rings” finale, though just as neutered of any believable human behavior.

Even as a story of good and evil for beginners, “Prisoner of Azkaban” is remarkably shallow. With Cuar¢n at the helm, this episode has been marketed as a walk on the darker side. During the screening I attended, the spirited room seemed to deflate by the time the great boogey man was revealed. In the third act kids were playing tuneless notes with their soda straws; the natives were getting restless.

“Prisoner” pulls some big talent out of its hat — Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman and John Cleese. The list is impressive, but who’s it for? Little kids don’t know these people. That none of them contribute more than a funny face is just a symptom of the lethargy rampant at Hogwarts. The key to the Potter mansion is that the films have no real story, because a real story has an ending, which would be very bad for business. Based on a book favored by fans for its surprise ending, “Prisoner” contains the most confused plot yet. It’s a hodgepodge of vaguely familiar characters and themes, some of which are more familiar than others.

Though you can’t always put your finger on it, much of the Harry Potter realm seems borrowed. Some elements are transparently stolen, as when a teacher at Hogwarts tells Harry he’s wise to fear fear itself, and the school choir sings “something wicked this way comes.”

Such cheap plagiarisms jive with the notion of formulated gimmickry, but the whole project seems like misplaced effort. Formulas are followed to give people what they expect. Children have no expectations. The only reason to bother with a formula at all must be to satisfy some perceived moral expectation of parents and grandparents. Underneath all the magic, the fundamental message of “Harry Potter” is that vulgar society is to be saved by smartly groomed and well-mannered children, who for some reason all happen to be white.

At well over two hours, the movie is simply too long. Near the end of the film, a clever little girl of about 5, twisting and wrinkling her nose nearby in her father’s lap, had what can only be hoped is a common reaction. Turning to him, she demanded, “How many minutes is this thing?”

About three movies too long and counting, kid. ** S

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