With the first two Harry Potter books covered, a shift was needed to tackle the third adaptation, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Chris Columbus (Home Alone) and his children-driven vision is replaced by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien). The change in director is necessary, considering the even greater shift away from a children’s movie into something much darker.
Like the previous Harry Potter installments, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is spending yet another summer with the Dursleys. The same tried and true formula is followed to get Harry back to Hogwarts and his friends, i.e. he causes some sort of magical shenanigans, the Dursleys express their hate of him, he leaves and finds his way back to school. It’s an established formula that’s become customary of the series as it allows the movie to hold on to that early comedic scene to show that, hey, they know how to humor you. And, once again, Harry is informed of some sort of trouble surrounding Hogwarts, giving he and his friends, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), a reason to entertain us for 150 minutes. The titular prisoner of Azkaban and purported traitor to Harry’s parents, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped Azkaban, the magical equivalent of Alacatraz (nice one, J.K.!). With rumors swirling that he’s out for Harry’s blood, the sense of danger is escalated in ways Harry never experienced before.
While Prisoner of Azkaban follows the same technique to present the conflict of the movie, the conflict itself is something much darker than in previous entries. While the previous sources of strife tended to surround Harry indirectly, Prisoner of Azkaban introduces something unfeasible until now: Harry’s actually in immediate danger. Furthermore, this is one of the more haunting movies of the series. The first time you see the Dementors flying around, you can’t help but feel something sinister inside of you. You literally see Harry’s soul being sucked out of him by attacking Dementors. Ridiculous.
Prisoner of Azkaban is the most important entry in the series because of the vital, new additions to the overall Harry Potter experience. Sirius Black, a future main character in the series, werewolf and part-time Defense against Dark Arts teacher, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), the Dementors and their viciousness, and Patronus Charms and their defense against evil magic are just some of the more important elements debuting in the series. Furthermore, with the growth of the characters and actors themselves, the movie makes a major step away from a simple children’s fantasy towards a more energetic, action-oriented movie.
The shift in focus is where the aforementioned change in director works best. Unlike Columbus, who seemingly threw in Harry Potter staples as if working off of some sort of check list, Cuaron focuses on the more important plot points of the book that help develop the characters better. For example, there’s no Quidditch until almost an hour into the movie, and even then, it’s a short scene that advances the plot. There are other small touches that accentuate the focus on characterization, like an early scene where Harry and Ron are hanging out with classmates other than Hermione. Shocking, I know, but you never really saw the three of them actually socializing with the other kids in the previous movies. Prisoner of Azkaban is grounded more in reality, albeit within a magical backdrop.
However, with a change in focus, there’s gonna be some stuff left out. One of the biggest plot holes in the story revolves around the Marauder’s Map, an item that, when the proper phrase is uttered, displays the whereabouts of every person within the vicinity. When Lupin (David Thewlis) takes the map away from Harry, he knows how to properly use it. It’s never explained in the movie WHY he possesses this knowledge, it’s just implied that there’s history shared between the two.
Prisoner of Azkaban is leaps and bounds better than the previous movies in the series primarily because it’s just an overall better movie. The combination of Cuaron’s direction, the growth in the actors’ abilities, the shift in narrative tone, and the important additions to the Harry Potter mythos are some of the reasons why the movie is met with better praise. And the CGI is infinitely better than the other two. Yes, it was important enough to note in its own sentence.
Overall Score: 7.75 – Good. (7s are good, but not great. These films often have a stereotypical plot or are great movies that have a few minor flaws. Fans of this movie’s genre might love it, but others will still enjoy seeing it in theaters.)
If the two previous movies didn’t sway you, I can guarantee Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban will. This movie is proof that, under the direction of an amazing director, the Harry Potter series can ascend the trappings of being just another film adaptation.