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Dissecting the Classics – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

November 9, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is slated for wide release next week, and I wanted to take the opportunity to cover one of the Harry Potter movies. Normally I’d wait for the week of, but for reasons that will become readily apparent, I wanted to reserve my 97th, 98th and 99th columns for something special.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Wide Release Date: May 31, 2004 (U.K.)
Directed By: Alfonso Cuarón
Written By: Steve Cloves, based on J.K. Rowling’s book
Produced By: Chris Columbus, David Heyman and Mark Radcliffe
Cinematography By: Michael Seresin
Edited By: Steven Weisberg
Music By: John Williams
Production Company: Heydey Films, 1492 Pictures
Distributed By: Warner Bros. Pictures
Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter
Emma Watson as Hermione Granger
Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley
David Thewlis as Professor Remus Lupin
Gary Oldman as Sirius Black
Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore

What Do We All Know?

Few things in media are as omnipresent as Harry Potter, whether you grew up reading the books and watching the movies or not. Much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the movies are hugely successful money makers – Prisoner of Azkaban is the lowest grossing with a mere $420 million worldwide, enough to be the 41st highest grossing film. The books are favorites of a generation (and a fair few of their parents), and likely to be a cultural touchstone for that group. And thanks to the films largely succeeding in bringing that magic from page to screen, they get to share that landmark status. So it’s time to take a look at one of them, the best of the bunch, and see how it holds up almost fifteen years later.

What About the First Two?

The first two Harry Potter movies were huge events for me, coming out within days of my 10th and 12th birthdays. And growing up, I much preferred the first two movies to Azkaban because of their slavish devotion to being near perfect adaptation. But growing up I’ve become somewhat disenchanted with them – Chris Columbus doesn’t excite me a director, the young cast really hasn’t become compelling in their own right yet, and the films have some serious pacing issues that comes from their attempt to bring as much from the books as possible.
I did consider doing Sorcerer’s Stone, but ultimately I don’t think it holds up more than just “good”. Chamber of Secrets is better in some ways and worse in others, having a weaker story to work with but making better use of cinematic language. But it’s the third film that has the benefit of having the best source material and the most talented director at the helm. While the Harry Potter franchise is best looked at in terms of overall impact (i.e. the experience of watching all of them growing up is a unique experience stronger than the sum of its parts), Prisoner of Azkaban actually holds up as a great movie in its own right.

What Went Right?

Prisoner of Azkaban is the third in a well-established series, and benefits greatly from what was already there. Right off the bat, the Harry Potter films had a great cast: Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, Mark Williams as Mr. Weasley, Richard Griffiths as Vernon Dursley and Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid all return and contribute quality scenes to this film. But Azkaban has its own contributions to make to the long-term cast; Emma Thompson is a perfect enigmatic divination teacher Professor Trelawney, Gary Oldman’s Sirius Black is both terrifying and warm as needed, and David Thewlis as Professor Lupin really captures the kind-hearted mentor struggling with lycanthropy. Most importantly, this film had the unfortunate task of recasting Albus Dumbledore after Richard Harris passed away. Michael Gambon not only proved up to the task, but truly embodied the commanding presence and subtle manipulation the role required.

However, a great supporting cast is only going to get you so far. Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets both struggle to remain credible when the teachers are gone and it’s up to the kids to perform. Fortunately, Prisoner of Azkaban proves that the great casting didn’t stop at the adult cast. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have more to do than ever in this film, and they are up to the task. Obviously Radcliffe and especially Watson have had successful careers post-Potter and you don’t need me to tell you they are charismatic performers, but Rupert Grint also showcases comedic timing and really captures some of Ron’s less pleasant characteristics. All three of them are more comfortable and naturalistic in their roles, and the result is the first film where it doesn’t feel like they are out of their depth.

While the cast is definitely the standout quality of the series, Prisoner of Azkaban also lucks out by getting to adapt the best book. Some Harry Potter movies are weighted down by their source material (Deathly Hallows, Part 1, Chamber of Secrets) while others struggle to find exactly how they want to adapt it (Goblet of Fire, Half-Blood Prince). But the third film has the benefit of a darker, more grown up story that adds to the history of the world, and distinguishes itself from the others by barely making mention of Voldemort. Instead, the focus is on the tension of Sirius Black being on the loose, what his connection to Harry is, and how badly misunderstood true events were. And just when things seem to be going well for Harry, we see things take another turn for the worse. It’s all much more gripping and engaging than the previous two films – the same holds true for the book.

Ultimately though, the difference becomes clear when one watches both the entire series of Potter movies and the films of director Alfonso Cuarón. Cuarón is an artist, a truly great filmmaker who had made great movies before (Y tu Mamá También) and after this (Children of Men and Gravity, the latter earning him Best Director), and his influence definitely separates this from the work of Chris Columbus (director of the first two) or David Yates (director of the last four and the Fantastic Beasts series). He and cinematographer Michael Seresin bring interesting frames and dynamic camera movement to the franchise. Some of my favorite sequences include a single shot in the Leaky Cauldron where Arthur Weasley warns Harry about Black, while the camera follows them and increasingly isolates Harry within the frame, and a really cool camera trick where the camera goes inside and through a mirror when the Defense Against the Dark Arts students battle the boggart. And then there’s the creative time travel sequence, topping the work of Back to the Future, Part II as the most clever use of the gimmick. The film is just so much more alive than any others in the series.

What Went Wrong?

If you’d asked me as a kid what went wrong with this movie, I would say that the change in production design was really off-putting and not quite true to the book. I’d also complain about the lack of meaningful Quidditch scenes, since I’m quite fond of them and I think Gryffindor winning the Quidditch Cup is an important moment in the book. But I’m far less interested in that as an adult, I think all of those changes were for the better, making a tighter, more streamlined film. I do maintain that the screenplay does a disservice by never explaining who Messrs. Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs are. Yes, most audience members know, but not all of them – some people only know these stories from the films.

But there are two continuity errors that stand out like sore thumbs – one is right at the start when Harry is using Lumos in his bedroom, despite not being able to use magic outside of school. This could be forgiven if it weren’t an important plot point just moments later when he inflates his aunt and goes on the run because he thinks he’s expelled. Second is when Lupin states that he was afraid Harry’s boggart would turn into Lord Voldemort, when we just saw him step in because the thing turned into a dementor. Speaking of Lupin, I don’t think the werewolf design really works the way it should, and I feel similarly about Black’s dog form.

And In Summary…

The Harry Potter series is better than the sum of its parts – the experience of growing up with them is probably impossible to replicate. Some of them hold up, some of them drag, but only Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban stands tall as a great film in its own right. It’s not that the other movies aren’t good, just that this one had the right alchemy: the young cast hit its stride as performers, the source material had never been better, and they had a truly visionary director at the helm. This is my favorite to revisit and strongly recommend viewing it even apart from the other movies.

But the Harry Potter franchise is only one of two game-changing fantasy series from the 2000s. And while this one is definitely a gem, next week we are looking at the start of perhaps the greatest film trilogy of all time…

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York, Independence Day, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Hook, Men in Black, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Double Indemnity, Lethal Weapon, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, The Exorcist, Psycho, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Haunting

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. I recently concluded my look back at the Star Wars prequels with Revenge of the Sith.