Potter Casts Spell on Muggle Moviegoers

There’s more mischief brewing at Hogwarts as the third installment in the hugely successful Harry Potter film franchise arrives to work its magic at the box office. Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban opens today in nearly 4,000 theaters across North America after setting box office records in the U.K., where it opened last week.

Director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess) takes the helm this time around, adapting one of the darker entries in the popular book series by J.K. Rowling. It’s young Harry’s third year at wizard school, and he fears it may be his last when he learns that convicted murderer Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from Azkaban Prison and may be coming after him. Daniel Radcliff returns in the title role, joining returning cast members Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Robbie Coletrane, Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith. Irish actor Michael Gambon (Sleepy Hollow, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) takes over the role of Albus Dumbledore, previously played by the late Richard Harris.

Also taking a starring role are visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic, Cinesite Europe, FrameStore CFC, Doule Negative, The Moving Picture Co., Baseblack, Machine and Northern Lights Post. Partiularly impressive are scenes involving a beautifully animated CG creature called a hippogriff, a curious cross between a horse and an eagle.

Pundits are predicting a $100 million opening for the latest Potter flick, which will knock Shrek 2 out of the top spot. No tears over at the DreamWorks camp, though. After successfully fending off Twentieth Century Fox’s The Day After Tomorrow last weekend, the studio’s animated sequel is expected to cross the $300 million mark in its third week.