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Potter 3: the darkest yet

Movies | Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the third book in J.K. Rowling's immensely popular children's fantasy series

Issue: "Ronald Reagan: In memoriam," June 19, 2004

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the third book in J.K. Rowling's immensely popular children's fantasy series, and the third to be translated to film. It is easily the most stylishly designed and directed of the three, but is likely to continue the series' tradition of troubling Christian parents.

In Azkaban (rated PG for frightening moments, creature violence, and mild language), Harry returns for his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry more alienated than ever from his Muggle guardians, an unkind and uncaring aunt and uncle. He is immediately greeted with the news that convicted murderer Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped the notoriously inescapable Azkaban prison-perhaps with the intention of coming after Harry himself.

Harry is again aided in his adventures by friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. The mysterious Professor Snape (the great Alan Rickman) is also back with a key role in this story. New to the school in this installment are professors Lupin (David Thewlis) and Trelawney (Emma Thompson). (It's beginning to seem as though nearly every British actor of any repute will have appeared in the Harry Potter series by the time it's complete.)

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The biggest change in this second sequel, however, is behind the camera. Chris Columbus (Home Alone) directed the first two Harry Potter films in a manner that helped assure their commercial success. Now that the films have established their box-office potential, Warner Brothers has handed over the franchise to an edgier, less likely choice: Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron (A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien).

The story this time is somewhat disconnected and arbitrary, but Mr. Cuaron brings a much-needed visual flair to the films, clearly reflected in the production design. Azkaban feels less overproduced, so that the sets and effects are more grounded in flesh and blood (or dirt and stone). The steeped-in-history re-creation of Hogwarts particularly stands out. But be warned: Both the plot of Azkaban and Mr. Cuaron's realization of it are much darker than the first two movies. Azkaban frequently relies more on the conventions of horror films than one would expect for a PG-rated children's fantasy.

The magical elements will continue to bother many parents as well. However, even others may still be troubled by the flimsiness of the film's moral structure. While many positive virtues are upheld, Harry and his cohorts often disregard-and are rewarded for disregarding-both the rules that guide life in a Muggle world and the rules that are supposed to guide wizards and witches.

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