When I was eleven, the owl that was in charge of delivering my Hogwarts acceptance letter must have lost its way somewhere over the Atlantic. However, that summer, I did get something just as good— I convinced my dad to take me to an opening night IMAX showing of *the best* Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The best Harry Potter film? Yes. Alfonso Cuarón single-handedly transitioned the Harry Potter franchise from a childhood fairytale to a complex, emotional story for all ages.
Christopher Columbus, the director of the first two installments in the franchise, opted out of the director’s chair for Prisoner of Azkaban. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Columbus captured the nostalgic childhood charm present in many of his films, like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire. It worked. The film was a financial and critical success. However, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was a different story. The script was riddled with corny dialogue. The cinematography is bland, and scenes are almost visually indistinguishable from the previous film. While composer John Williams did craft some memorable motifs and themes, much of the score is reused from Sorcerer’s Stone due to William’s commitment to composing Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. And despite being the second shortest book in the series, it is the longest film, clocking in at 161 minutes.
With Azkaban, Cuarón brought a new aesthetic, life, and darkness to the films that was desperately needed as the groundwork for the later Potter films. The geography of Hogwarts changed. There were two new courtyards. Instead of being right out the front gates, Hagrid’s Hut was now located across a footbridge and down a gorgeous, green hill. A clock tower was added, which also worked to remind viewers of the thematic element of time in the film.
Cuarón was also faced with casting a new Dumbledore. Richard Harris, who portrayed Dumbledore in the first two films, passed away before production began on Azkaban. Cuarón and the production team chose Irish actor Michael Gambon, who embodied a new liveliness and wit, very present in author JK Rowling’s books, but not as much in Richard Harris’ version of the character. Other newcomers like David Thewlis and and Emma Thompson, who portrayed professors Remus Lupin and Sybil Trelawney, respectively, brough great emotional depth to their roles, and to Harry’s story.
There are many tender, intimate moments in the film that create a greater emotional death. Early on in the film, Harry and Ron are seen enjoying candy that causes the eater to make various animal noises, with their bunkmates in their dormitory. This small sequence shows kids being kids and having fun like a 13 or 14-year-old might have in the Muggle world; a reminder to older viewers of what it’s like to be a kid, and that these characters are kids, despite being faced with dark times.
Another special sequence comes during a moment when Harry and Lupin discuss his mother and father on the new previously mentioned footbridge on the Hogwarts grounds. The bridge crosses over a valley, overlooking the mountains and forest surrounding the castle. Both Harry and Lupin show a soft, vulnerable side, which establishes their close relationship developed throughout the film. There’s a moment later in the film, where Harry is worried Lupin might have betrayed him, and this scene adds legitimacy to viewers on Harry’s worries and feelings.
Cinematographer Michael Seresin crafted scenes that distinctly and artistically brand the film as Azkaban. The filters and lighting are darker than the previous installments, but not so much as to distort the scenes. The camera is almost always constantly in motion, visually marking the movement of time again as a thematic element to the story. Williams composed one of his best film scores of his career (and received an Academy Award nomination), crafting memorable tracks like A Window to the Past, Double Trouble, Buckbeak’s Flight, and Secrets of the Castle. Secrets of the Castle, when listened to own its own, has the incredible ability to make listeners feel like they’re actually wandering the halls of Hogwarts. The track Forward Time to Past crafts an ominous sense of urgency toward the end of the film while Harry and Hermione are faced with a difficult task, and connects the theme of time audibly for viewers by utilizing the ticking of a clock.
The film does have a few faults. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) gave a rather “unique” take on Harry’s feelings during an emotional moment when he discovered that Sirius Black allegedly betrayed his parents to Voldemort, and he was allegedly out to kill Harry. Additionally, a major connection between an artifact in the film to new characters is left on the cutting room floor. The Marauder’s Map, a map that shows the exact location of everyone in Hogwarts at any given time, was known to book readers as being created by Remus Lupin, Peter Pettigrew, Sirius Black, and James Potter (Harry’s father), listed on the map under the monikers Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs, respectively. In the film, Lupin and Black are shown to have a great knowledge of the map, but it is not explicitly said that they were the creators, nor that they used the monikers listed on the map. This creates a bit of confusion in the following film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Pettigrew is only referred to as Wormtail.
While these two criticisms are valid, it does not stop Azkaban from being the best Harry Potter films. Any book-to-film adaptation is going to have cuts and changes. Some story elements that work in a book don’t work as well on screen. Directors also have their own artistic vision that they work to bring to life on screen. Book-to-film adaptations are interpretations of a book, not an exact replay.
Azkaban uniquely weaves Rowling’s story with Cuarón’s artistic style. It stands out on its own, and doesn’t feel like a cookie cutter installment (here’s looking at you again, Chamber of Secrets). Azkaban is the transition point in the novels where Harry, and friend Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger start to become adults, and that is accurately reflected on screen. It’s visually and audibly stunning, both sight and sound standing out on their own, but perfectly complement each other in every scene of the film. I often wonder what the later installments of the franchise could have been with Cuarón in the director’s chair, but as a hardcore fan, I’m incredibly thankful for his work on the film, and still as excited as I was opening night to rewatch it for years to come.