By Ty Burr
November 26, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Murray Close

If you’re a hardcore Harry-phile, it’s easy to get hung up on the small picture. The third Potter film cuts out way too much of J.K. Rowling’s 435-page magnum opus, Dumbledore is played by a different old guy (Michael Gambon), and — horror of horrors! — they’ve moved the Whomping Willow. Fans of cinematic craft and plain old entertainment, on the other hand, will recognize Azkaban for what it is: better.

Director Alfonso Cuarón (whose relevant credit is 1995’s A Little Princess, thank you, not 2001’s heavy-breathing Y Tu Mamá También) brings actual artistic inspiration to the proceedings, replacing Chris Columbus’ dutiful Xeroxes with invention and mischief. Judging by the making-of featurettes on the second disc, Cuarón could have pushed further: He tried creating the Dementors with maverick puppeteer Basil Twist before giving up and going CGI. (Would that he had found a different approach to the computer-generated werewolf that resembles a Chihuahua on steroids.)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is nicely balanced between high-flying fantasy (the Hippogriff; a particularly rough game of Quidditch) and growing adolescent rebellion, and between the charming ordinariness of leads Radcliffe, Watson, and Rupert Grint and the skill of heavyweights Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, and Emma Thompson. The two-disc set is for kids rather than cineastes, though, since it lacks a director’s commentary (a shame, given what a chatty delight Cuarón can be) and dumps a hodgepodge of extras on the second platter. Fatuous cast interviews with British ”personality” Johnny Vaughan are for the bedroom-poster crowd only, and the tours, games, deleted scenes, and quizzes about ”magic you may have missed” are for rainy days only. The real magic, in case you haven’t noticed, is on disc 1.