Back when I read the third book in the Harry Potter series, I disliked it very much. I was probably around 9 at the time, and I though the story was… inconsequential. The lack of a narrative arc revolving around Voldemort was a huge problem for me, as I felt the overall narrative of the franchise wasn’t moving forward. With time, I have started to be fond of the book to some extent, due to the more mature themes, but hey, this is a blog about films, right? Let’s find out whether Prisoner of Azkaban was up-to-par with its predecessors!
Harry returns to Hogwarts for a third time, where he will, once again, find himself in trouble. This time around, that trouble has a name: Sirius Black, a man that escaped the most secure prison in the world with the only objective of killing Harry. When the odds are completely against him, he will only have his friends Ron and Hermione to overcome the challenges that will shed a light upon his past…
Let’s start with the most obvious change, the director. After Chris Columbus created the perfect atmosphere for JK Rowling’s Wizarding World with the first two instalments of the franchise, Warner Brothers trusted Alfonso Cuarón to tell the more serious storylines in the third movie. And man, was it a great decision.
Cuarón does a great job at everything related to film-making. The more mature presentation of characters and plot points that were featured in Rowling’s book required a darker tone throughout the picture, and the director’s job is nothing short of a huge accomplishment. The use of longer shots enhances the film greatly, as it provides a more realistic tone to the universe that is here to stay (for good reason). The decision to use handheld cameras instead of tripods for the majority of the runtime is a great addition too, as it creates a sense of uncertainty and unease by depicting an always-moving universe that escapes the control of the characters. Great film-making, indeed.
Prisoner of Azkaban could be the most magical movie in the franchise too, as tons of special effects flood every scene. A man stirring his cup without touching the spoon, someone moving from a painting to another in the background, flying creatures… You may not notice all of them, but they add up and create a very magical atmosphere. Cuarón somehow succeeds at making suspension of disbelief last for the entire runtime.
Of course, the huge budget helps with that. The visual effects are formidable throughout the film, with very few exceptions in which CGI is a bit too obvious (I’m sorry, Buckbeak), and production design is excellent too, with sets that are more detailed than in any other Harry Potter film. Cinematography is pretty good too, with an intelligent use of lighting and greatly captured colours that are grim but defined, specially when it comes to blacks. For one last time in the franchise, John Williams provides the soundtrack to this film, and he does so beautifully. Playful at times, tense and thrilling at others, this is yet another score worth listening to over and over again masterfully written by Williams.
The cast of the Wizarding World is growing up, and Harry, Ron and Hermione aren’t kids anymore. Thankfully, their acting abilities have grown with them, and together with Cuarón’s great direction, all three of them achieve incredible performances. There are some new additions too, such as the one and only Gary Oldman. His portrayal of Sirius Black is very convincing, indeed, and it wasn’t a particularly easy one – the interests and motivations of this character are unforeseeable. Black isn’t the only character keeping secrets, though: Professor Lupin makes his first and most mysterious appearances in the franchise in this very film, played by a fantastic David Thewlis. Finally, since Richard Harris passed away after the second film was shot, Michael Gambon replaced him with a quite different approach when portraying Hogwarts’ headmaster, Albus Dumbledore: while Harris’ character was sweet and comforting, Gambon tried to create a more distant character, someone we can trust but definitely don’t know much about. It works well and the result is an intriguing and interesting character, but I do miss the warmth the previous actor irradiated in every scene.
Prisoner of Azkaban features a story in which the stakes are quite low (hence my dissatisfaction when I was younger) when compared to the arcs presented in the previous two films, but the plot devices used throughout the picture are certainly very compelling. For instance, a time-turner is used to create my very favourite time-travel story ever. It works brilliantly inside a single loop of time, and the way Cuarón depicted it on-screen is, simply put, perfect. A lot of foreshadowing was thrown into the mix, and this was done with such expertise that turned a family-friendly movie into an experience that could be watched over and over again with the feeling of discovery never being worn out. Many other elements receive this treatment too, and as new events show up, it all has a sense of familiarity that is unheard of in such a fantastic world.
All in all, there is no doubt that, albeit the weaker storyline, Prisoner of Azkaban is a stunning movie. Masterfully directed, magical, thrilling and charming, this is, without a doubt, the best film in the franchise. It achieves to do everything it tries to, but more importantly, it makes every element click into place with an accuracy rarely found in blockbuster family movies. 9/10