Another year, another Harry Potter movie.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban fulfilled all box office hopes, raking in $92.6 million in its first three days. (That's the second-best three-day-opening ever, behind Spider-man's $114 million.) More surprising was its critical reception. While devoted fans of J.K. Rowling's best-selling series of novels are upset by screenwriter Steve Kloves' abridgement of the storyline, most mainstream film critics are celebrating this third film in the series as the best so far.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, noticeably more mature) and his friends are young teenagers now, and they're dealing with more serious matters. Harry is more confident in his talents, and bolder. He's quicker to use magic to humiliate his family, quicker to break the school rules to investigate shadowy matters, and quicker to confront his enemies. There are the first glimmers of romance between his friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), as well as clear signs of "girl-power" audacity in Hermione's willingness to stand up to the school bullies.

When this episode's threat against Harry arises, this time in the form of escaped prisoner Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), Harry and his friends find themselves entangled in a complicated web of cover-ups and conspiracies. They receive hints, hindrances, and help from familiar faces like Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon replacing Richard Harris), and the new teacher on campus—Professor Lupin (the brilliant David Thewlis). The film gathers to an involving and complicated climax involving an enchanting winged creature called a Hippogriff, a ferocious werewolf, creepy flying phantoms called Dementors, and a magic trick that shows up conveniently just in time to give our heroes the advantage they need.

While I wholeheartedly agree with those critics praising director Alfonso Cuaró n for the way he improves upon the work of Chris Columbus, who directed the first two films, I did not find Azkaban to be a better story than The Sorcerer's Stone or The Chamber of Secrets. In fact, it is a deeply troubling episode. While the cast is phenomenal, the exploits of the heroes are increasingly arrogant and anti-authoritarian. Further, the conclusion involves too many arbitrary twists and a magic trick that's a complete cop-out—one that has been worn out through over-use in action-adventure movies and Star Trek episodes.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

This time around, Christian film critics seem to be less concerned about the issue of witchcraft in the film. There seems to be more willingness to accept that magic in these stories is being employed the way it has been in fairy tales for centuries—as a system of symbolism that represents personal talents and gifts, and that also represents the role of technology in our own world. When real-world "dark arts" make an appearance in the plot, they are treated in a tongue-in-cheek manner that serves to make them seem dismissible, hokey, and merely make-believe. It all should make for a good family time at the movies, so long as viewers discuss what they have seen and ensure that everyone understands the difference between fantasy and reality.

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Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) writes, "This is the third—and arguably the best—adaptation of [the] novels about the boy wizard. Cuaró n brings a more cinematic sensibility to the tale just as Steve Kloves' screenplay is less concerned with a literal translation of Rowling's novel. The resulting visuals are impressive, sometimes glorious—and occasionally frightening." Pare adds that it is "too intense for young children unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy."

"I liked the first two installments of the series," says Michael Medved (Eye On Entertainment), "but I love this movie, which, for all its amazing creatures and dazzling special effects, looks somehow more realistic with a more fully realized vision of the world of Hogwarts."

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Cuaró n brings darker colors and bolder, more imaginative visuals to this entry in the series, and for once, it can be said that a Harry Potter film has been made with something resembling a genuine artistic vision. Azkaban is perhaps the most emotionally complex of the Harry Potter stories to date." He notes, "It leaves out a fair bit of material … that could have clarified the connections between certain characters and objects."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) is impressed with what's there, but troubled by the film's omissions. "Where its predecessors felt a bit padded and overlong, this one feels incomplete and overly edited. Important elements included in the films no longer totally make sense, or have the necessary significance, in the absence of what the film doesn't tell us or show us. I can't say for sure, but I suspect that viewers who haven't read the book may feel somewhat lost at times. At the same time, fans of the book, even those who aren't rabid purists, may be upset or disappointed by the loose ends and neglected explanations."

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J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) says, "Though I haven't been a teenager for a long time, I thoroughly enjoy the Harry Potter books. But ever since I read Prisoner of Azkaban, I've wondered whether it was filmable. I'm happy to say … [Cuaró n and Kloves] have largely succeeded. The movie covers most of the important plot points, and Cuaró n conjures up some wonderful visual tricks that fit with the tone of the book. Instead of the effects overwhelming the story, they serve it, and the movie becomes a seamless, magical tale."

Jenn Wright (Hollywood Jesus) says it's "a plethora of fun and fantasy for adults and children alike … 136 minutes worth of sheer treat. Cuaró n took an existing abundance of amazing talent and used it to equally amazing ends in creating this whimsical yet somehow down-to-earth film." Wright highlights the film's emphases on themes of mercy and sacrifice.

Michael Ray (Hollywood Jesus) says, "The universal themes, the sharp directing, and a twisting plot combine to make Prisoner the most mature Potter film yet. It's a joy to watch these characters grow into their place in movie history. Adolescence can be an awkward stage, but in this case, the film handles it with ease."

Josh Hurst (Reveal) compares Cuaró n's approach to literary adaptation to Peter Jackson's work with the Lord of the Rings films. He concludes that it's "the sharpest Harry Potter film yet. In addition to the contributions from the new cast and crew members, the film also boasts the series' most stunning special effects yet, not to mention a fine score from composer John Williams, whose previous Harry Potter work has been a bit lacking."

But Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) takes a different view altogether. "There are signs that the film is off track right from the start. Harry is more petulant and less of a likable character. The tone and atmosphere is significantly darker and the humor, what little there is, seems forced and out of character." He adds that Michael Gambon's Dumbledore "is a mere shadow of the character we met in the first two films."

Steven Isaac with Rhonda Handlon (Plugged In) says, "More prominent here than in Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets is Harry's defiance and his rule-breaking." They're especially concerned about the willingness of the "good wizards" to employ evil phantoms to protect their school. They conclude, "It's cool. It's fun. It's entertaining. Harry faces down his fear. Love is shown in selflessness and self-sacrifice. Despite intense feelings of anger and a mad desire for revenge, Harry is more interested in discovering the truth about what happened to his parents than easy retribution against the man he believes betrayed them. But when you're battling darkness with darkness, even the winners end up wondering where all the light went."

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There are, however, some critics who still argue that the magic in J.K. Rowling's stories is meant to be taken seriously and literally—that Rowling is recommending witchcraft as the route of true salvation. (I still wonder why these critics do not make similar protests about Mary Poppins, the King Arthur stories, and the Disney movies in which magic is used similarly.)

Sheri McMurray (Christian Spotlight) says, "We, as God fearing, loving parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and all, have been running fitfully in front of J.K. Rowling, and whatever she may have to dish out next, protecting our children. With just cause, we are appalled by her relentless and eerily accurate depictions of witchcraft, spells and dark arts. She is declaring to our youngsters that this is merely harmless fantasy, when in stark reality witchcraft is a sin and no one will go blameless before the Lord who practices it. It is only just and right that we have the righteous urge to shield our children from practicing such acts and are worried they will become involved in things that God strictly forbids."

She also warns viewers about a werewolf transformation scene. "I was scared to watch it myself, and I can sit through 'scary' with the best of 'em."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says Rowling "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." She concludes by writing that Rowling is "perhaps assisted by the very forces she unveils in her novels."

I'm curious: Have any Film Forum readers changed in their opinions about the Harry Potter stories since the controversy first arose? Do you find your children being lured toward the dark arts because of the boy wizard? Do you have other concerns about the stories? Or do you find the stories to be wholly worthwhile? Let me know. (See readers' responses here.)

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More raves for Super Size Me, rants for Saved!

Reporting on Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock's movie that explores the damaging effects of the fast food industry, Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "Spurlock has created a fascinating documentary that is full of facts, moves quickly, and is quite humorous. His message, that we should be better stewards of our bodies and not allow the prevailing, almost overwhelming culture (of eating fast and badly) to tempt us, connects with Christian values. There are a few profanities and obscenities, as well as some inappropriate sexual references … so it is not for children. It is, however, an excellent way for adults to learn about this booming industry."

The film directly affected her eating habits. "Although I'm not a huge fan of fast food, I indulge occasionally. After seeing this movie, however, I intend to avoid fast food as much as possible. During my two-day drive, it took slightly more time and money to find healthier fare, but I felt so much better."

Reviewing Brian Dannelly's satire of life in a Christian high school, J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) says, "The problem with Saved! is that it thinks it's making a realistic film, one that has something to say about contemporary teen culture and specifically evangelical culture. But with everyone but Mary a simple two-dimensional character, it's hard to take any of this seriously. It's just rehashing old cliché s. And in the end, the only evangelicals we root for are the ones who largely abandon any pretense of being evangelical. If those sort of movies were made about other religious groups, people would howl in protest."

Next week: Vin Diesel returns in the first of a new sci-fi franchise: The Chronicles of Riddick.