Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Posted by Joel Copling on December 4, 2015

A change in the chain of command is just what the adaptations of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" novels needed. Chris Columbus brought a straightforward visual sensibility to the previous installments that elevated the magic of production design above all else. With "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," director Alfonso Cuaron pushes the stylization to a point where the visual elements feel entirely lived in. In many respects, this is the beginning of the story of the boy who lived onscreen--darker, funnier, and more thrilling than anything that came before it. Screenwriter Steve Kloves still manages adherence to the novel to a fault, but the seams are far less obvious this time.

Where the previous films revolved around central MacGuffins found in the titles and investigated in the films' respective climaxes (resulting, in both cases, in set-pieces of thrilling grandiosity), this one takes the opportunity to explore our central character's past for the first time. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) escapes his abusive relatives' home after unintentionally ballooning his makeshift aunt and sending her into the sky. Relieved of all punishment by a fidgety Minister of Magic (Robert Hardy) and reunited with best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), Harry returns to the comfort of his dormitory at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Of course, when one's name is Harry Potter and one's gift/curse is fame as being the downfall of the greatest dark wizard in history, things are probably never going to go exactly right, even when one is safe in the wizarding world under the watchful eye of headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, taking over for the late Richard Harris). It turns out that Azkaban, the wizarding prison, has seen the first breakout in wizarding history, and the culprit is Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), whose crime of killing 13 people is small potatoes to Harry when he learns that Black was his late parents' best friend before selling them out to Voldemort. Black may just be on his way to Hogwarts to finish off Harry, who is remanded to the castle and forbidden to join his fellow students in a nearby wizarding village on certain weekends.

Otherwise, life is the same as always in the castle, where Harry's continued rivalry with Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) comes to a head when Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), the gamekeeper of Hogwarts who has now been hired to teach Care of Magical Creatures, introduces his new class to a hippogriff (a sort of eagle/horse hybrid brought to life by a clever middle ground of CGI and practical effects work) and it attacks Malfoy (This subplot is more important than it seems). Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), the potions master, is still a vindictive son of a you-know-what, although the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), is a much nicer alternative. Lupin teaches Harry privately how to ward off dementors, cloaked phantoms with the nasty ability to suck the happiness out of people (and, in more serious cases, their souls).

The mystery surrounding Black's reemergence is fuel for a thrilling, multi-layered finale that plays with time. It's an extended sequence focused entirely upon the continuity of details, with everything from distractions that play as odd the first time we see the events play out being clarified as crucial to the timing and pacing of character motivations and mise en scene. The revelations held by this third act are enough to surprise viewers not familiar with the twists and turns of the novel (They involve, not only that curious reversal of time, but also the allegiances of two characters and the surprise resurrection of a third) and satisfy the novel's fans.

Set-pieces come and go (Quidditch plays perhaps its most crucial role in the films yet, featuring Harry's first real, scary encounter with dementors while in the air, while a climactic showdown with the same creatures and a werewolf is a lot of icky, gooey fun), but this is largely a character-based installment, with Harry's inner turmoil of finding out the identity of the man who betrayed his parents taking center stage. This is the first time Radcliffe has really come into his own with a performance that goes a little farther than simply the Everyman Hero Figure, and the scenes he shares with Thewlis, terrific as Lupin, are the film's most touching moments. "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" is a significant step forward for the series.

Film Information

Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Emma Thompson (Sybil Trelawney), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Julie Christie (Madam Rosmerta).

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron and written by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling.

Rated PG (frightening moments, creature violence, mild language).

142 minutes.

Released on June 4, 2004.