Sorry, ”SNL” fans: ”’Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” does not star Lindsay Lohan as a newly voluptuous Hermione Granger. But the third ”Potter” film does nod to the dark magic that is adolescence, thanks in part to new director Alfonso Cuarón (who replaces Chris Columbus). And while kids will still be entranced, it’s the first Potter movie capable of seducing even adult Muggles. Here’s what’s new WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! Some plot elements are revealed.
1. THE THING THAT CANNOT BE NAMED (OKAY… SEX) ”Would you like to move a bit closer?” Hermione (Emma Watson) asks Ron (Rupert Grint) in one ”Azkaban” scene, sending her redheaded pal’s complexion to new heights of floridity. It turns out she’s not talking about getting cozy, but the romantic tension between the two 13-year-old characters is nonetheless palpable throughout ”Azkaban” (there’s a quick hand-holding scene, too). That being said, the Potter saga is in no danger of being mistaken for Cuarón’s raunchy romp ”Y Tu Mamá También.” At least not yet.
2. FRIGHTS Though most of the witches and warlocks encountered in ”Potter” are friendly, they’re still witches. So it’s appropriate that much of ”Azkaban” is downright spooky, beginning with an unsettling sequence of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) sitting in an empty playground on a moonlit night as an ominous black-eyed dog approaches from the shadows. But it’s the Dementors – gnarled, ghostly, hooded creatures who serve as soul-destroying prison guards – who are awful enough to haunt adult nightmares. Not that WE were scared, of course.
3. DIVERSITY Minority enrollment seems to have doubled at Hogwarts this year. Suddenly, there are a lot more black, Indian, and Asian faces around (matching a similar trend in the books). Still, the main characters remain as white as Hedwig’s feathers.
4. REALITY It used to be easy to forget that Harry lives in the present day, that the Ministry of Magic’s wands and potions exist alongside the Muggles’ laptops and cellphones. But ”Azkaban” helps merge the two worlds by giving Harry and pals a makeover, replacing the Hogwarts robes of yore with jeans, sneakers, and warm-up jackets. Another nod to the real world: A magician is spotted reading Stephen Hawking’s ”A Brief History of Time.”
5. VISUAL MAGIC Thanks to ever-improving computer effects, Cuarón’s roving camera, and a picturesque new location in Scotland, Hogwarts and its more exotic residents look better than ever in ”Azakaban.” The flying Hippogriff, a horse-eagle hybrid integral to the plot, feels as real as, say, Ron – despite being as much of a CGI creation as the last film’s dodgy Dobby. The obligatory Quidditch scene is convincing, even though it takes place in a driving rain storm (always a CGI challenge). There’s room for improvement, however: The movie’s ”scary” werewolf looks like he’s auditioning for ”Scooby-Doo 3.”