Year 3 at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry takes a different approach in adapting the story of the same name by J. K. Rowling. Instead of there being a villainous character like he-who-must-not-be-named to thwart in a desperate return to power, The Prisoner of Azkaban is a murder mystery. But not in the traditional sense. We know who the murdered people are and who was behind the wand that cast the killing curse as fact but rather, who sold them out and who really remained loyal to the very end will be the source of the truth to be uncovered.
The real villain of this film winds up being the wizarding justice system and subsequently the media outlet the Daily Prophet for how they skew the truth and withholding key information. About to start his 3rd year at Hogwarts School, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) must first endure a visit from his Uncle Vernon’s (Richard Griffiths) sister Marge (Pam Ferris), in which Harry’s anger leads to him blowing up Marge into a balloon. Harry’s journey back to the wizarding world becomes an adventure, taking the knight bus from Privet Drive back to the Leaky Cauldron. “You hear that Ern, the Leaky Cauldron, that’s in London”.
Once in safety of the inn, Harry gets reunited with best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron’s entire family. Once again, Harry is told he’s in grave danger, but at least there’s no concerned house elf to stop the barrier at platform 9 3/4. The danger Harry learns about that he’s in once again is the result of a breakout at Azkaban prison by presumed death eater Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). Black is the one the media and justice system blame for passing along the whereabout of Lily and James and killing former friend Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall) in the process.
All they could find of Peter’s remains was a finger. And that’s all it took for Sirius to be convicted and sentenced to Azkaban where he stayed for 12 years until his daring escape. Presumed on the run and looking for Harry to finish the job, Hogwarts becomes the host for several of the guards at the Azkaban prison – Dementors who take away all of the happiness and good spirits wherever they go. Early on in the first act of the film, their power is put on display during the train ride back to school. The air gets cold, room temperature water instantly freezes, and the air gets sucked out of the room as the dementor attacks Harry, causing him to pass out.
Luckily, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) was there to cast a Patronus Charm against the dementor and offer Harry chocolate to aid in recovery.
Both The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets displayed magic in a fantastical sense. The Prisoner of Azkaban takes a more grounded, realistic and practical approach. Spells are dazzling in their subtlety and specificity as red and white wisps shoot out of the tips of wands. Each spell has a purpose and they’re used at the right moments to increase the tension in the scene. Or sometimes a fist works when Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is being particularly malicious. Leave it to a muggle born to land a satisfactory blow to the school bully – something we all wish we could do whenever Draco is on screen.
Although Daniel, Rupert, and Emma are front and center, the full ensemble cast all give exceptional performances in their now lived in roles. Brief in their screentime, all of the younger cast keep the cohesive chemistry they have all built up over the course of 3 films. Foul characters like Draco are heightened by Tom’s performance portraying the bully but proving the character is merely a coward. But its newcomers like Gary Oldman David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, and Emma Thompson as Sybill Trelawney, the Divinations professor that compliments the older returning cast. Out of those four however, its Michael Gambon as Dumbledore (taking over for the late Richard Harris) that commands the screen.
Gambon as Dumbledore is no imitation of Richard Harris’s version. Gambon brings a flamboyancy and conviction to the headmaster – you can feel his influence and prescense when he isn’t on screen. The creature designs are haunting, the stuff nightmares are made of, adding to the depressing nature these dementors use to attack their prey. Whereas Buckbeak is full of life and personality in every movement he takes.
Since the famed sport of Quidditch is largely omitted aside from one remarkable sequences that ends in horror, the sensation of flying comes atop Buckbeak’s back. The sequence mirrors a rollercoaster ride, featuring exhilarating highs and lows soaring around the castle grounds. In that moment of trust between Harry and Buckbeak, we’re all Harry, letting the rush of adrenaline take over, screaming into the wind in delight.
The Prisoner of Azkaban in its complexities of telling its story becomes a looser adaptation by returning screenwriter Steve Kloves. Whereas the first two films are more faithful, year 3 sets a darker tone, steeped in emotional depth and more mature themes that changes the order of events in some regard and gives different characters exposition that was in the novel. Both the production and costume design by Jany Temime and Stuart Craig respectively are stylistically and aesthetically pleasing with the uniforms showcasing individuality as the younger cast gets older.
Hogwarts has never looked more gothic in design and intricate with the many moving parts built into the magical walls. For as bright as the costumes are, the muted gray wash and minimal light sources cater to an authentic experience while complimenting the darker tone. John Williams provides the best score for the franchise, bringing the 3rd act to life with a constant ticking of a clock, making the urgency to save two lives feel like time is running out as its happening.
From here on out, the series gets progressively darker in tone and theme but its Prisoner of Azkaban that kicks it off. Director Alfonso Cuarón in following what Chris Columbus establishes handles the mystery with ease, never losing the core development of his main trio but furthering it. Cuarón has total control over the source material which makes for a tense and unnerving ride through Harry’s unknown past. As the choir puts it best, something wicked this way comes.
Screenplay By: Steve Kloves
Directed By: Alfonso Cuarón
Music By: John Williams
Cinematography: Michael Seresin
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters
Where to Watch: Max
Edited By: Steven Weisberg
Release Date: June 4, 2004
Running Time: 2 Hours 22 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%
Based On: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling