Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Mysterious thing, time. Powerful, and when meddled with, dangerous.

From its pre-title sequence, where we see Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) playing with his wand under the bedsheets, it is established that “Prisoner of Azkaban,” the third entry in J.K. Rowling’s Potter series, will offer a wholly different vibe. Gone is the yellow, innocent glow that surrounds the halls of Hogwarts designed to embrace those from the outside looking in. Grayish blue hues are now in its place. Gone is the inviting, child-like score teasing mystery and wonderment. Instead, the music is foreboding, even capable of getting under the skin at times. Gone, too, are so-called extraneous sequences where we simply learn about minute curiosities within the world of witchcraft and wizardry, like strange artifacts and bizarre organisms that may not have anything to do with the big picture. Here, every scene must contribute to the overall narrative.

It cannot be denied it is a more mature work, certainly a step forward in terms of plot, visuals, and characterizations. In a way, it must exhibit noticeable growth—no matter how awkward—given that Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) have entered their teenage years. In the hands of director Alfonso Cuarón, with Chris Columbus now serving as producer (“Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Chamber of Secrets”), the film proves capable of delivering great entertainment. It balances fantasy, thrills, horror, and human drama so readily and so astutely that it is difficult to predict what is in store when a new day begins for the wizards-in-training.

I admired its courage for not running away from more adult-oriented themes. The death, no, the murder of Harry’s parents, James and Lily, are brought up more than thrice. In each instance, the screenplay by Steve Kloves is knowing enough to slow down and really hone in on how their deaths have impacted Harry as a young man. For example, even though he considers Hogwarts to be his home and he has terrific friends, those bright blue eyes communicate a deep loneliness. Harry longs to be loved and to be wanted by his kin, his blood. And so when Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, recalls his own memories of James and Lily, we feel Harry’s yearning to learn more from the man. Through Lupin’s recollections, Harry feels James and Lily are alive—even for just a moment. Take note of Cuarón’s affinity in employing close-ups, occasionally to the point where it feels uncomfortable. And it should. A case can be made that “Azkaban” is a coming-of-age tale.

Another highlight is the first time Hermione and Ron see their best friend cry during a trip to Hogsmeade, a village right next to Hogwarts. I loved that human emotions are not treated with the slightest whiff of embarrassment. When Harry is emotional, we feel Hermione and Ron wanting to understand even though deep down they know they won’t be able to completely given that they are not orphans. In fact, they come from good, loving families. They do not know how it is like to be treated like dirt, to be abused verbally and physically, by their flesh and blood. But they try anyway. And so that effort earns our respect—outside of books, outside of magic, outside of exercising loyalty. Ron and Hermione may not have defined subplots in this installment, but their actions are often highly informative and telling.

Threat comes in the form Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the first convict to have escaped the notorious Azkaban prison. It is said he is a murderer, and he wishes to find Harry then kill him. Funnily enough, this is the least compelling aspect of the story since there are far too many obvious red herrings. I suspect Cuarón feels this way, too. His solution is to flood the central plot with empathetic moments, as mentioned above, and terrific personalities. Notice that adults—Snape (Alan Rickman), Lupin, Black, Trelawney (Emma Thomoson), Dumbledore (Michael Gambon in place of Richard Harris due to his death)—are given more time to speak and interact. Their collective experience elevates the material, that it is not just a children’s story anymore.

There is not a trace of Voldemort in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” yet it is first-rate entertainment. In fact, there is no villain here—at least, not really. The point, quite simply, is to discover the truth. As proven here, defogging secrets and lies can be more compelling than battling a man with two faces or squaring off against a giant basilisk. Despite the flood of fantastic elements, Cuarón’s fascination with humanity fluoresces, consistently on the foreground.

5 replies »

  1. Wonderful review. I love the film, but there is no denying the fact that Cuaron moulded the HP universe as he saw fit and took certain…artistic liberties, if I can call it that. I preferred the two previous films. I mean, you are right that it is a more mature work, but Harry Potter is supposed to be only 13…13! in this film, but it feels like the film is about some sixteen-year old teenagers – so dark and grow-up it all seems all of sudden in comparison to the previous two film where Chris Columbus’ approach did everything possible to make the films feel like stories about someone’s childhood. Another thing is that – quite clearly – Rowling changed her footing after penning her other two books. Are we to understand that Harry as a 11 and 12 year old was facing Voldermort and the giant monster from the chamber, but then as 13 and then 15 and 16 year old hardly faced anyone at all? Unfair burden and what an imbalance narratively and logically.

    • And that’s exactly what I loved about it: a filmmaker taking a source material and making it his own (which annoyed some fans due to the changes made from the book, especially since the first two film were adamantly loyal to the novels). Regarding what you mentioned about the film’s sudden tonal shift, even though the characters were only supposed to be 13 in this chapter, don’t you think it was necessary that it be different from the previous two? From a symbolic perspective (first year of being a teenager), I feel like it was the correct choice. This one, when compared to the first two, felt more urgent, more epic even. It upped the stakes for Potter’s relationships. (I loved that Voldemort wasn’t in this chapter so the focus was elsewhere.) It certainly paved the way for much dark entries.

      I also think that having Harry facing a “big bad” every year is no good (Voldemort or otherwise)–that would’ve made the overall story feel episodic. For me anyway.

      • Yes, I see your point. It all makes sense. As I said, I love the film, but maybe not everything in it. I guess I am a bit part of the HP fan community and some changes and the sudden shifts did annoy me a little, as you said. My biggest complain in this universe is actually directed to the fourth film, which I consider to be a total disaster :) Once they settled on one director after the fifth film, they became more uniform…in all their increasing darkness and gloominess.

        • Oh, the fifth film… lol. I’ve scheduled to post my review tomorrow.

          By the way, I forgot to ask: Have you read the novels? I want to re-read them now… *eyes Amazon*

          • Yes, I re-read them recently. I love learning languages through HP, it’s most efficient, so I re-read them in Spanish recently (all but the final book, which I cannot stand!). The books actually make very nice and cosy holiday reading.

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