Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
What is particularly important about Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is that new talent comes on board: Alfonso Cuarón. The kids are now teenagers, and Cuarón manages to tap into their growing sensibilities and develop them as actors. The difference in acting is striking, and everyone, not just the kids, behaves much more convincingly and seriously. Fortunately J.K. Rowling’s source material is also noticeably more mature and engrossing.
The first two films were too much about the wonder of a world of wizards and magic, too much prancing about in awe of everything to care about much else. But here we get the sense that it was finally given a proper context. Cuarón likes long, elaborate (some even handheld!) takes, and the result is that it takes everything to a new level as the world finally feels like one living, breathing thing. Not once does Cuarón follow Columbus’ lead: he proceeds in creating a whole new vision, drawing on horror film conventions rather than the puerile antics of before. He also is great with space, which is rare. For the first and last time, the geography of Hogwarts, flowing from scene to scene, is clear and complete, which really helps in immersing us in the world of Harry Potter. The importance of this is something that I can’t stress enough — more on that in a bit.
Also, a great addition is the replacement of Richard Harris (Dumbledore) for Michael Gambon, due to the former’s passing. Gambon gives a much more nuanced performance, adding every line with a sly humor that went unnoticed in Harris – if it was there at all. Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson (the trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione) takes a giant leap in their characters and their acting abilities, especially Radcliffe. Gary Oldman, David Thewlis and Alan Rickman look like they’re enjoying themselves, and their presence certainly adds up.
Prisoner of Azkaban is also the one with the most interesting visual ideas – take the title sequence for instance. It’s brief and not really breathtaking or anything, but when you compare it to what Columbus, Newell and now Yates do with it, it’s one step next to nothing. Also, when Hermione and Harry go back in time, Cuarón has his camera go through the Hogwarts tower clock as it follows them down the building, and again when they come back. Again, not really a big deal, but it shows that it is possible to add some nice visual motifs that actually add to the film. Just because it’s a Harry Potter movie doesn’t mean it has to be bland and dull all the time.
One thing that particularly bothered me in Chamber of Secrets was that every single action was plot-driven; every line of every character meant something. Nothing was ever added just for texture or atmosphere, it was just to carry the plot along. That had a very tiring and manipulative effect. It’s not completely absent from Prisoner of Azkaban or any of the other installments — as I think J.K. Rowling is probably to blame for this — but in this one you have stuff happening in the background and other details that make it seem more alive. Keep in mind that Prisoner of Azkaban is the shortest of all the five films, clocking at just over two hours, so nobody had to sacrifice anything in order to do this.
Apparently, Columbus had been too faithful to the book, preferring plot over character, which resulted in movies that were a little too long and clunky. Not surprisingly, Cuarón was actually criticized for quickening the pace, reducing the abundance of expository dialogue and bringing new life to the series. In Prisoner of Azkaban you finally get the feeling that this world can be real, in the sense that it is populated by other creatures and characters other than our trio of heroes, giving much more room to subtleties. An example is the moving pictures in Hogwarts: before they were literally background and just you saw them moving from the corner of your eye, but now they even have personalities of their own. Even the magic has been gone up a notch or two, like, for instance, the map Harry has that reveals not only geographical space but the people moving in it in real time. It’s a great device and used to good effect.
The last third of the film in terms of cinematic presentation, is just spetacular, and the most complex and layered sequence in the Potter series; although story-wise, it doesn’t add up to much, with a little too many plot holes — but not nearly enough as before or after this episode. The time travel sequence is a marvel of storytelling, brimming with paradoxes. We see the same events from different perspectives, much like in Back to the Future 2, which takes the previous scenes into a whole new level of intricacy and subtlety. In terms of structure, it is a clever and ingenious climax that doesn’t rely too much in pyrotechnics or clumsy action sequences — like the one in Chamber of Secrets. The paradoxes it creates fit neatly into the story without seeming like lazy solutions.
From a certain point of view, however, this is a transitional story, setting the stage for the real climactic events of Goblet of Fire. But this is also Harry’s only small-scale adventure done intelligently, and the only film of the series that can function successfully alone from the others, and that’s saying something for the inventiveness of the writing. From Order of the Phoenix on, an impending sense of doom a cumbersome politic-driven plot (I guess this always happens in these fantasy series) take over, and much of what is so innocent (but not childish) and delightful in the third and fourth films are gone forever.\