Yesterday we examined the merits (and demerits) of the screen version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, as we count our way down (or up, I suppose) to the sixth film on Wednesday! Now, let’s take a good look at the third film in the franchise, based on the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This is where the movies really started to take off–focusing heavily on the larger seven-part story and finding some truly terrific filmmakers to take over for the less capable Chris Columbus.
This film is directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who has also given us Y Tu Mama Tambien and the brilliant dystopian sci-fi picture Children of Men. He doesn’t really seem like the kind of guy one might initially jump to for this job (although I’m sure his 1995 film A Little Princess plays a big role in that), but he nevertheless fashioned what many consider to be the best film thus far in the franchise. (As with all previous articles, beware massive spoilers below).
After closing that Chamber of Secrets back up at the end of his second year, Harry has returned to the Dursley household where he finds himself having to endure not only their hateful banter, but that of a visiting relative as well. Eventually it becomes a little much for Harry, and he inflates the rude visitor into a gigantic balloon. She flies off into the night prompting Harry to pack his bags and take off, knowing that the Ministry of Magic will surely be on his tail for performing magic outside of school.
The Ministry does finally track him down, but for a different reason than what Harry had expected–apparently no one gives a damn about that blown-up bitch of an auntie floating around in the atmosphere. No, what they want is to keep an eye on Harry because a known Death Eater (the name given to Lord Voldemort’s closest followers) named Sirius Black–Harry’s godfather who betrayed his parents, selling them out to Voldemort–has just escaped from Azkaban Prison and is presumably out to murder Harry.
As the plot unravels and Black gets closer and closer to Harry, it is eventually revealed that he actually is not the malevolent Death Eater that he has been made out to be; he was framed by another and has been seeking out the real culprit, Peter Pettigrew, who has been disguised as Ron Weasely’s rat, Scabbers, for the past twelve years.
Pettigrew unfortunately escapes, but in order to save Sirius from being captured and having his soul sucked out by a bunch of eerie Dementors, Harry and Hermione engage in some time-shifting shenanigans, after which Sirius is able to go back on the run, disguising himself as a dog and keeping a constant loving eye on his godson.
The Meat and Potatoes
You could make the argument that the whole story really starts here. Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets are fun and whimsical little adventures, but right here is when the main plot begins to deal directly with the larger story. Events here will have a very direct impact on events in future Potter stories. In a way, the first two films (and books) are mere prologues to the remaining five stories.
But Prisoner of Azkaban marks the emergence of a whole different type of Potter film. Now in the hands of a director with real aesthetic talent, the movie looks so much cooler, darker, and more serious than the first two films. The entire color palette of the franchise changed with this movie and it has stuck ever since, becoming the defining aura.
Also a noteworthy change in this film is the recasting of Michael Gambon as Dumbledore after the sad death of Richard Harris. Harris was a fantastic Dumbledore, but Gambon brings a lot to the table, too. His Dumbledore is more of a grumbly old fart than the sweet elderly gentleman with the twinkle in his eye, but he plays grumbly quite well–in its own sweet and endearing sort of way–and he’s definitely proven that he’s got the badass chops that it’s going to take to knock some of what he has to do in Half-Blood Prince clean out of the park.
Prisoner of Azkaban may just be my favorite of the films so far–this and Order of the Phoenix both achieve a tone and a sense of urgency that none of the others have really quite matched. There’s a lot of fun and genuine intrigue to be had in the story, and all the time-shifting tomfoolery is more than right up my alley.
Prisoner of Azkaban also introduces us to some great characters, like Remus Lupin, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, one of the few characters to hold the position who hasn’t proven despicable. In fact, he’s quite a good guy–despite being a werewolf. Peter Pettigrew makes his first appearance here as well–the man who really betrayed the Potters and subsequently lived for twelve years as the Weasley family rat. He shows up in the next one, Goblet of Fire, in a big bad way.
And of course, we can’t forget Sirius, Harry’s only real family in the wizarding community. It was a remarkable bit of casting to put Gary Oldman in that role, and he absolutely nails it. It might be said that the one absolutely consistently amazing thing about these movies is how ridiculously perfect all the casting is, down to every last character. Azkaban is possibly the best movie for showcasing this in all aspects, although I’m also quite partial to Brenden Gleeson’s turn as Mad-Eye Moody in Goblet of Fire. (But more on that tomorrow…)
All in all, Prisoner of Azkaban is an outstanding movie–fast-paced and involving and a fantastic testament to “the-plot-thickens” type of storytelling. This film is proof positive that the franchise benefited greatly from Chris Columbus’s (who did serve as procuder here) decision to step away from the director’s chair. Having already had everything set up for him throughout the five-hour-plus duration of the first two films, Alfonso Cuaron takes it upon himself to create a dark fantasy yarn that is entertaining and exciting. He knows that respecting the source material doesn’t necessarily mean to just simply shoot it verbatim in the most drab and static way you can. Good on ‘ya, sir!
Why You’ve Gotta See It:
Well, you’ve gotta see it because it’s an outstanding movie. But the part that sticks out the most is sure to be Harry conjuring up his first fully-formed Patronus charm at the height of tensions when a horde of Dementors are encircling an unconscious Sirius and the two-hours-ago version of himself. And if that terrific, rousing moment isn’t enough for you, it’s made all the more outstanding by the explanation that follows, keeping right in with the cyclical craftiness of dear sweet time travel. So says Harry, “I knew I could do it…because I had already done it! Does that make sense?” To which Hermione replies with a most assured “No.” Aaah, I love this movie.