In recent years, Alfonso Cuaron’s stock in Hollywood has only grown. Before this film, his work was celebrated in Mexico, yet mixed in the United States, as is the story for many Mexican filmmakers, including Cuaron’s friends Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, both of whom started their career to much acclaim in their homeland before making the move up North to America.
If the Cuaron of modern times were to take on a big franchise film such as this, the decision would be met with shock, and confusion, not to mention a little excitement too. Although there are examples of acclaimed directors taking on such projects now – such as Taika Waititi, and his dalliances with the MCU – generally speaking, big franchises with mainstream appeal look to a safe pair of hands to deliver a film whose main driving motivation is making money, not an artistic statement.
One need only look at the list of directors to take on this franchise, with the exception of Cuaron, and maybe Mike Newell too, to see an example of what I mean. Chris Columbus, as previously stated in my Chamber of Secrets review, was focused on a more casual, family crowd with films like The Goonies and Home Alone; while David Yates had an extensive background in television before taking the directors chair for Order of the Phoenix onwards (a chair he still occupies to this day having subsequently helmed the rest of the HP series, and the Fantastic Beasts films).
I feel compelled to say that none of this is a bad thing, of course. Just because something is made with a casual audience in mind doesn’t make it bad. The point I am trying to make is that this multi-million dollar franchise film sticks out like a sore thumb amongst Cuaron’s filmography, but arguably the film is better off having someone with more vision and differing creative ideas behind the wheel.
After an unfortunate incident with his Aunt Marge, Harry finds himself back at Hogwarts amidst a massive manhunt for a convicted murderer, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who has recently escaped the wizarding prison Azkaban. Harry soon discovers that Black may have played a part in his parent’s murder, adding more tension to the desire to capture Black. All the while Hogwarts is guarded by the menacing Dementors, foul creatures who guard Azkaban, and who seem to have an interest in Harry.
I don’t think there is a more perfect example of a tonal shift in a franchise that is both overwhelming and incredibly effective. That toothlessness the franchise had in Chamber of Secrets is long-gone by the time this film rolls around, with Cuaron and his crew completely overhauling the ambience and nature of the film, and the franchise feeling all the better for it.
This is the film, I feel, where everything clicks into place for the Harry Potter series. It finds the perfect balance of darkness and light, which the series would continually try and recapture, with varying levels of success, for almost the next decade.
Gone is the gaudy brightness of Chris Columbus’ films, replaced with a darker, dingier look and feel, that is more reflective of the series aesthetic as a whole, and if you were looking to be philosophical about it, could even be a good metaphor for the onset of the teenage years, given the visibly changed appearance of the series child cast, who have gone from apple-cheeked and innocent, to angsty and tortured in a way not seen since the days of Kevin the Teenager.
The child cast of the series has matured in more ways too, inarguably improving as performers in the interim period between the second and third instalments; with Daniel Radcliffe in particular now looking like an actor who can carry a franchise, with Rupert Grint and Emma Watson more than capable of carrying their weight.
This is the first film in which the gulf between adult and child actors begins to noticeably shrink. Whereas previously you’d be forgiven for thinking the adults were guiding their younger counterparts through scenes, now it feels as though they are closer to being on equal footing. They’re no longer in the shadows of their more experienced co-stars, the scenes they share don’t feel like an old hand guiding a newer one through the process, but rather a scene shared between equals.
While we’re on the subject of the older performers, this film brings us a few noteworthy additions to the larger series. Most noticeable of which is the titular prisoner, Sirius Black, who takes on the mantle of the parental figure for Harry in the next few instalments. Gary Oldman is an actor who needs no introduction really, and he lives up to his reputation here, showing the range of the Sirius character from the wild-eyed monster the world at large sees him as, to the kindly paternal figure Harry has needed for many years.
We also meet Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) in this film for the first time. A perennially-underrated character, Lupin is another character added to the mix who represents duality, a key theme in the film as a whole, as he balances his life as an educator and his status as a werewolf.
This film also marks the debut of Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore, following the loss of Richard Harris. As much as Harris personified the Dumbledore character in his two appearances, I can’t help but feel that Gambon was necessary for the character as he increases in physicality throughout the series. While Gambon himself will tell you that Harris was the superior Dumbledore, I think he does himself a disservice, as that twinkle of wisdom that is essential to the character is still present in his interpretation.
I think it helps that this film is adapting perhaps the strongest book of the series too. Prisoner of Azkaban is a marked departure for the franchise at large. It’s the only story in the series to not revolve around Harry’s endless battle with Voldemort, which is a welcome break from the character, familiarity, as we know, breeds contempt, and this narrative break allows him time to breathe as an antagonist, and recuperate in time for his big comeback in the next film.
I believe Prisoner of Azkaban to be the strongest entry in the entire series, if the previous paragraphs didn’t make that clear enough already. More than that though, it marks the point where the franchise finds its feet as a film series; from here on in, the films would all be varying levels of quality, as is the case for any series, but there is never a true misstep in the time from here, right up to the final battle with Voldemort.
Some films would be less-enjoyable than others, but they used the winning formula, and all feel at home in the adventure at large; while the change in atmosphere from CoS is a welcome one, it is also quite jarring, with the first two films seeming more dated by comparison on a retrospective re-watch.
There is so much more I can say about Prisoner of Azkaban, but I fear this review is already running long, and I’d hate to be a hypocrite, given what I said about the last film.
Undoubtedly the benchmark for the rest of the franchise, Prisoner of Azkaban is astoundingly well-acted, eerily atmospheric, and layered with just the right amount of complexity that the Harry Potter series prides itself on. A darker experience undoubtedly, but still pure magic.