- Vancouver, British Columbia - The third Harry Potter series saw some significant changes that would forever take the series in a new direction. The biggest change of them would be the switch over from director Chris Columbus to Alfonso Cuarón. J.K. Rowling apparently quite enjoyed Cuarón's adaptation of A Little Princess in 1995 and deemed him suitable to direct the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This would become a trend through the franchise as it would see more directors before finishing.
The film begins with the standard confrontation between Harry and his unpleasant relatives. He storms out after using a spell to inflate his Uncle Vernon's sister after she jabs at Harry's parents. He gets picked up and the minister of magic sweeps the whole incident under the rug but also informs him that a dangerous prisoner has escaped from the magical prison Azkaban and is out to hunt and kill Harry to avenge his old master Voldemort. Harry later meets up with his pals Hermione and Ron and take the train to Hogwarts for their third year at school. Creepy flying spirits called Dementors are at Hogwarts to guard it from the escaped prisoner, but they don't seem to sit well with Harry either as they have this tendency to try and eat his soul or something.
Alfonso Cuarón's contributions to the series extend far beyond this film. First, because he is a different director, this movie is stylistically completely different from the previous two. It's darker and edgier, more so than The Chamber of Secrets. Visually, it's quite striking, but with a much more classic film approach. Columbus' Potter films were visually beautiful, but that is more due to the special effects that the world called for; in some ways it was a more blunt adaptation. The Prisoner of Azkaban doesn't appear as magical or wondrous, but rather is just shot very beautifully, using the best of some of the more simple and real visuals that the Potter world has to offer.
The performances from the actors are also improving. The main three kids take a huge step as characters and actors. Even while surrounded by some of the finest British actors, they stand their ground and carry the movie. The assisting cast know their place, and play their parts with the appropriate diligence and respect.
The role of Albus Dumbledore went through a significant change. For the first two films the role was played by legendary actor Richard Harris, but even while filming The Chamber of Secrets, Harris was quite ill. He insisted that he finish his part and begged for the producers not to recast the role. He finished as promised and sadly, died before the movie was released. Another veteran actor, Michael Gambon, was hired by Cuarón to fill in Harris' shoes. Gambon does not make the mistake of trying to imitate the other performance, but rather allows himself to play Dumbledore quite differently. This one has a more apparent strength, which makes it easier to believe that he is as powerful a wizard as has been only implied so far.
There are more secondary characters added to the series which I feel are very strong additions. Sirius Black is wonderfully portrayed by Gary Oldman and is extremely captivating on screen, which is important since there is a great amount of mystery surrounding his story. There is also the addition of Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), who is the third Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher in just as many years. Unlike the previous films, I can understand fully why the other teachers respect him and keep him on the staff. He is a flawed character, but very wise and strong.
While The Prisoner of Azkaban is much darker in tone for the most part, there are some strangely goofy moments which I must admit, were somewhat off putting. Near the beginning there is a long and strange sequence where Harry rides in a “night bus.” There is a talking shrunken head, and the visuals get oddly psychedelic at times. I can sort of see what they were going for, but I didn't care for it. It didn't seem to fit well with the rest of the movie.
I have another complaint which perhaps should be more minor than it is, but it lingers in me and actually makes me enjoy the film less. I don't want to give too much away, but I will say that at a point in the movie there is a werewolf... and it looks absolutely terrible. For years film makers have made some decent looking werewolves with far more limited special effects than what is available in modern film making so I don't see any reason why this poorly designed CG werewolf should have been allowed in the final product.
Despite the flaws, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is one of the franchise's strongest films. It benefits from a strong cast and director, but also the story itself is one of the better ones. There is a great deal of suspense and mystery. It uses the pieces that already existed in this world and expanded upon it. It creates a stronger back story and shines some more light into Harry's past. And also, the story is the most self contained out of all of the films (and books too I suppose). It fits into the big picture of where the stories have been and will go, but it exists on its own and works very well.
Currently The Prisoner of Azkaban is the highest rated Harry Potter film by critics (though the newest movie might change that). Curiously enough, it is also the lowest grossing movie in the series. Though, that shouldn't be seen as too much of a defeat as it's still in the top 30 of the highest grossing films of all time. It is a fan favorite and brought a new standard to the Potter films. It elevated them to new artistic levels and showed that this franchise had a lot of potential and was not just going to be a one trick pony.
Rating: 4/5 Sour Grapes