PG Cooper: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Posted: July 5, 2011 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in Retrospectives

*Disclaimer’:Review Contains Spoilers

Release date: June 4th, 2004

Written by: Steve Kloves

Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Alan Rickman, and Robbie Coltrane

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban sees Harry at his third year at Hogwarts. Before the school year begins, Azkaban prisoner Sirius Black escapes. Black is guilty of murder, and allegedly being a supporter of Lord Voldemort. Harry is frequently warned that Black may be after him, but he’s not sure why.

Azkaban would feature two changes that would forever change the series. The obvious change would be Michael Gambon replacing Richard Harris (who died a month before Chamber of Secrets was released) as Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. While that was an important change, and one I intend on talking about, the biggest and most important change would be the replacing of director Chris Columbus. Columbus opted to bow out as a director so he could spend time with his kids. Directors up for the part included Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh (who played Gilderoy Lockhart in The Chamber of Secrets), Marc Foster, and future Oscar nominee Guillermo del Toro. Eventually when the smoke had cleared, Spanish director Alfonso Cuarón.

Before this, Cuarón had a few critically acclaimed films under his belt, of which I unfortunately haven’t seen any. While he may have seemed an unconventional choice given his lack of experience with blockbusters, Cuarón proved to be exactly what the series needed. Cuarón pushed the films into darker territory, delivering a film that was edgier and more tense than it’s predecessors. And yet in spite of this, he still made a film that kept the fun and adventurous nature of the series in tact. Cuarón is also a much better visual director than Columbus. Columbus may have been competent at capturing the world of Harry Potter, but Cuarón excels at it. Part of Azkaban‘s visual charm lies in the design of the set, costumes, and props. The other part is just the way Cuarón films everything. The camera work in this film is a significant step above the camera work from the Columbus films. What’s truly amazing is how Cuarón managed to put his own touch on the series, while still remaining faithful to the world established in previous entries. This would be Alfonso Cuarón’s only Potter film, and I am curious as to how the series would have turned out had he remained on board. Of course had he stayed with the series, we never would’ve had the incredible film Children of Men, so I suppose I’m not too upset by his departure from the series.

Once again our three leads remain the same, though this time there is a significant leap in the quality of their performances. They’re not little kids anymore, they’re teens, and they all seem more natural in their parts. Rupert Grint is far less annoying as Ron and Emma Watson brings a more mature Hermione to the screen. But the biggest leap comes from Daniel Radcliffe as the series hero. In the past two films, he sort of felt like the default hero. He was the person we were following, but only because his name is in the title. Harry himself wasn’t the most effective or interesting character. But in this, Radcliffe’s performance is a lot more interesting. He seems very comfortable in the role and I enjoyed his character a lot more in this film. Another important factor in this is because we go deeper into his character. In this film, we see Harry actually internally dealing with the death of his parents, as well as meeting people who knew his parents. Watching him deal with these things is central to the film, and really made me feel sympathy for Harry in a way I hadn’t before. Radcliffe also captures an element I felt lacking in the previous film; Harry as a loner. While he may be surrounded by great friends, their is a distance between them and him in some ways, and this was the first film that really brought that.

Of the supporting cast, the ones who return are just as great as always. Robbie Coltrane is still the lovable Hagrid, and his character always puts a smile on my face. Alan Rickman is also back as Snape, and gets more to do here than he did in the last film. I know Snape is pretty much a huge dick to everyone, but I just love watching him. More Snape is always better. Michael Gambon takes over from Richard Harris as Dumbledore. I know I was fairly harsh on Harris in my review for Philosopher’s Stone, but I do feel he grew into his own for Chamber of Secrets. That said, I still think Gambon is the superior Dumbledore. He doesn’t try to imitate what Harris did, and instead just brings his own portrayal to the table. I found him far more interesting than Harris, and I also believed that despite being quirky and strange, Gambon’s Dumbledore really was one of the greatest Wizards of all. The main reason for this is because in the previous films, we mostly just heard of Dumbledore’s genius. In this film though, we actually see it, just in subtle ways.

We also see two brand new characters: Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) and Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). Thewlis is very likable as Remus Lupin. Lupin is one of the few professors at Hogwarts who Harry bonds with, and watching their relationship develop makes for a lot of great stuff. At the end of the film, Lupin decides to leave Hogwarts when the fact that he’s a Werewolf is brought to light. It’s a kind of said scene, and I felt sorry for Lupin. Of all the professors at Hogwarts, he’s probably the most likable one. But the new addition I really love is Gary Oldman as Sirius Black. Oldman is an actor who always really sinks into whatever character he’s playing, and I love him for it. He’s awesome as Sirius Black, he manages being scary, but also charming and likable. Most importantly, Black is really interesting. He’s only in the movie briefly near the end, but you leave wanting to know more about him. Sirius Black might be my favourite character of the series, and Gary Oldman is the main reason why.

A big issue I had with the last two films were the run times. Each of them were two and a half hours long, and I felt dragged. This film was 2 hours and 20 minutes, but fortunately, this one actually warrants such a run time. The story never dragged and I was never bored. The story is paced much better, there’s always something happening to keep interests raised. The story itself is more interesting than the last two films. We get some big roles regarding Harry’s past, and their are a few twists and turns along the way. The film also shows the students just being casual with each other. There are moments where we see the characters just being themselves, hanging out. There only there in small doses, but they do help establish the relationship between the characters. It’s great that the film managed to balance heavy story, as well as casual character development so seamlessly. I have to think Steve Kloves script for this. It seems he really learned from his mistakes on the first two films.

This movie can also be praised for it’s individual scenes. Any scene involving the Dementors for example, is great. I really love the Dementors. They’re very menacing, and the general tone when they’re around is dark and effective. Their design is similar to the Ring Wraiths from The Lord of the Rings, but I think these guys are actually creepier. The action scenes are also at there best in this film. Like in the last two, there is a Quidditch game, but this one stands out with it’s dark and rainy setting. The confrontation with Lupin in werewolf form is also a great moment. But my favourite action scene, by far, is when Harry and Hermione are being attacked by the Whomping Willow. It’s a very thrilling and exciting scene, but also tense.

In all these reviews, I’ve frequently forgot to mention the score by John Williams. This was not deliberate, in fact, after publishing both reviews, I found myself saying, “Damn, forgot to mention the music.” It does seem fitting that this would be the review I’d finally mention it in, since it was the last Potter film John Williams would score. Most of the classic Potter themes that have been played in all the films were done by Williams. His score for this is probably my favourite of his Potter scores. It still has the whimsical charm, but there’s also a more menacing undertone, which is very appropriate for the film. It’s a great score, but you’d expect nothing less from Williams.

In spite of all my praise, I do have faults with the film, albeit small ones. One is the portrayal of Malfoy. I’ve had problems with this since the beginning, but this is the first time I’ve felt the need to mention, in part because those films had other, more pressing issues, and partly because now that the characters are teenagers, I can’t cut them as much slack. I love the idea of having a darker equal to Harry Potter. Someone who would serve as a rival. But it doesn’t work in the films because Malfoy does not feel equal to Potter at all. He’s always being one upped and humiliated by Harry and his friends. And he always takes it like a wuss, scurrying away and crying. I just see so much wasted potential in the character. Admittedly, it’s a very small part in this film, but in the grand scheme of the series, they do a lot with the character.

One thing on the film I’m sort of mixed on is the time travel element of the story. I do think it’s handled well. The rules, well they aren’t spelled out for the audience, seem clever and I like the way it works. I also like that you see the effects of what Harry and Hermione do with the time travel before you actually are introduced to the time travel element of the story. The only problem I have is just that it raises a lot of unanswered questions. For example, if Hermione was given one just to catch these classes, how common are they? How many other wizards are meddling with time? What effects are they having? What’s the punishment for being caught? Why is this never used again in the series? You could say that the film is a fantasy and just go with it, and you would have a point. Had this element been in either of the first two films, I probably could. But Prisoner of Azkaban is so much better as a film, that I feel it would be unfair to go easy on this.

Many Potter fans consider this film to be the best of the series. While I don’t want to make that bold of a statement yet (I want to finish my retrospective first), I understand where these fans are coming from. Alfonso Cuarón made a film that surpasses it’s predecessors in every conceivable way. The acting, effects, action, and tone are all better. And Prisoner somehow manages to be the most dramatic and tense so far, but also the most fun and adventurous of the series so far. I remember liking this film, but watching it again it played better than I expected it too. I feel kind of bad for excluding it on my best of the decade list. While the first two Potter films were good, this is the first one I won’t hesitate at calling great.

Rating: A

  1. […] The first two Potter films are good movies, but they are a bit kiddish and have a lot of problems. Prisoner of Azkaban really elevated the series. This is a film that is far darker than the previous installments, and eliminated all the major problems from the first two films. The three leads really step up their game, and Radcliffe especially really shines here. The film also has the added bonus of having Gary Oldman as Sirius Black. Not only was this film the darkest at the time, but it also stands out as being the most fun film of the series. It’s hard to imagine how director Alfonso Cuarón pulled such a feat off, but he did. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a great film and a definite highlight of the series, for my more detailed thoughts, click here. […]

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