Release Date:  June 4, 2004
Rating:  PG (for frightening moments, creature violence and mild language)
Genre:  Adventure/Family/Fantasy
Run Time: 135 minutes
Director:  Alfonso Cuarón
Actors:  Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson

Most of the media are calling the third and latest installment in the Harry Potter series “dark.” They aren’t kidding.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliff) is 13 and back at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry along with Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint). Other familiar faces include Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), the gentle giant hired to teach on the care of magical creatures with his curious hippogriff, an eagle crossed with a horse.

Unhappy at home with his aunt and uncle, Harry becomes incensed when another aunt makes unkind comments about his parents. Disobeying school rules about the use of magic outside school, Harry blows her up like a balloon, causing her to float away. Fearing punishment, he then runs away but is picked up by the Night Bus, which escorts him to the Leaky Cauldron Pub. There, Harry is rebuked – but not disciplined – by the Minister of Magic, then set off to school.

Before the students arrive, their train is accosted by Dementors, avenging spirit guards that suck the souls from people. The Dementors are searching for a convicted murderer named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), an evil wizard who has escaped from Azkaban Prison in order to kill Harry. Black was involved in killing Harry’s parents and is very dangerous. Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) allows the Dementors to come to Hogwarts to protect the students, but warns the children not to go near them, because they will destroy anyone in their way. Strangely enough, they attack Harry several times, without explanation. After several adventures, Harry, Hermione and Ron eventually come face-to-face with Sirius and several other “shape-shifting” creatures who have tricked them.

The “Harry Potter” phenomenon has made a billionaire out of its creator, author J.K. Rowling, a French teacher and single mother from England who hit pay dirt when her third novel was published. Now the wealthiest and highest-paid author in the world, Rowling has sold more than 80 million books, and the movies made from her books have all been blockbusters. The quality of her stories cannot be denied; she is an excellent writer with an amazingly creative imagination, and her films reflect this. But her occult worldview, which is of great concern to Christians, teaches that humans are the ones who judge good and evil – and that we can and should use supernatural power to influence both.

“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is, by far, the most disturbing of the three movies. It emphasizes the occult far more and its plot – pursuit by a convicted murderer – is scary. With beautiful but frightening music, the colors, costumes, and themes of the movie are foreboding and eerie. The acting, directing by Alfonso Cuarón ("A Little Princess", "Y Tu Mama Tambien), sets and cinematography are of the highest quality, however, even if the plot is confusing and flounders. Overall, the film is a cinematic success.

Though perhaps assisted by the very forces she unveils in her novels, Rowling’s success with children is a sign of the times. After all, Harry Potter is an emotionally abused orphan – a scenario that resonates with an astonishing number of children today. There are more than 500,000 children in foster care in this country, with 18,000 being “emancipated” into adulthood every year. That number increased 35 percent during the 1990s and continues to rise. Single-parent homes, where children experience the emotional and/or physical abandonment of one parent, have also grown dramatically, as have sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children. Kids live in a violent, volatile, desperate world, and it is the rare child who has two emotionally stable, nurturing parents to protect him.