You can be mad if you want to, but Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the best Harry Potter movie. Before you get your knickers knotted in a ball, we wouldn’t just make that sort of declaration without having receipts. To begin we get it; we realize that the film, which was helmed by Academy Award winner Alfonso Cuarón, looks drastically different from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Chris Columbus of Home Alone fame directed the first and second film. When Cuarón came on the scene for Azkaban he knew that it was time to add a bit more darkness to The Wizarding World. In doing so, he was able to expand Harry Potter, Hermonie Granger, and Ron Weasley’s world while setting the tone for the remaining five films.
Let’s dive right in shall we. Many of the OG Potter fans (like us) have various gripes with the films, mainly that the movies are so different and Peeves the poltergeist is nowhere to be found. If you’ve been reading J.K. Rowling’s books since ’98 (it got to the U.S. a year late OK!)–you expected to see certain things on the screen, and when that didn’t happen, we’re sure your pre-teen/teen angst began to bubble to the surface. However, by using his own specific vision for Azkaban and leaning into some major changes like Michael Gambon stepping in as Dumbledore after Richard Harris’ death, Cuarón enabled the entire HP film franchize to stand on its own–separate from the novels.
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Though Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets established the Boy Who Lived’s background–the texture of Azkaban allowed the audience to really sit with the intricacies of the story. Instead of just using Hogwarts as a background fixture for HP and his homies, Cuarón peeled back the layers of castle allowing us to see into the dorms for the first time. Harry often vocalized that Hogwarts was his true home, not 4 Privet Drive. Giving us a glimpse into the dorms where he could just be a boy and hang with Ron, Seamus, Neville, and Dean you can see why he felt that way.
In a brilliant move, Cuarón also eliminated the constant visual of those stuffy formal school robes from the movies. By seeing our favorite witches and wizards in jeans and T-shirts, we saw them as more tangible and more approachable then they may have felt in the first two movies. With the characters officially stepping into their teen years as well, the audience was also privy to more of their fully fleshed out personalities. From Hermonie’s fierceness to Harry still grappling with his destiny, and Ron’s constant desire to eat, we were able to sit with all of it. Instead of telling a story for teens from an adult lens–Rowling and Cuarón were able to create something that took the emotions of teens seriously. They understood how beloved the books were so there was no need to overexplain or to be so on the nose about everything in the Harry Potter Universe as the previous movies had been.
Since the Azkaban book is also the shortest of the franchise, massive chunks of Rowling’s original story were able to remain intact instead of being gutted for the sake of time. Obviously, the narrative of Azkaban is from the mind of Rowling, but the way that Cuarón positions the would-be villain Sirius Black (Gary Oldman)– a tangible bad guy that isn’t Lord Voldemort or a magical diary also elevated a bit of the darkness and drama in the movie. Though Harry and his crew had to deal with real conflict in the past, because Sirius was also Harry’s godfather–the pain of his supposed betrayal is much more gut-wrenching than anything we’d experienced prior.
I had to be very respectful to the source material, but also to the two previous films. But, at the same time, I was trying to make something that I could feel my own
In addition to the realism and the compelling storyline, those gorgeous cinematic flourishes in Azkaban truly elevate the film franchize into something beyond “teen flicks.” As the Whopping Willow twists and bends in the wind, the seasons change. When Harry gets on the Knight Bus, Ernie and that shrunken head give him the literal ride of his life. By adding these touches, Cuarón erased some of the Disney-like flourishings of HP giving the magic a Tim Burton-like and more serious quality. He told IGN, “I had to be very respectful to the source material, but also to the two previous films. But, at the same time, I was trying to make something that I could feel my own.”
Like it is currently, technology was rapidly changing at the early 2000s. From the debut of Sorcerer’s Stone in 2001 to Azkaban just three years later, this was evident in cinema. As a result, the magic (except for Professor Lupin’s werewolf form) also began to look more realistic which Cuarón used to his advantage. Though we admittedly don’t get the fully fleshed out back story to the Marauder’s Map (which is one of our only gripes with the movie)–seeing it come to life on screen was breathtaking. Had the film been made just a couple of years earlier, or even with a different director, we might not have gotten such sensational visuals.
More than anything, the detail, and nuance of Prisoner of Azkaban set the stage for Goblet of Fire and everything else that came after it, not just in the HP franchise, but also with teen flicks like The Hunger Games, The Fault In Our Stars and Insurgent. The Wizarding World would only become darker and more dangerous and as Harry, Ron, and Hermione grew–encountering new experiences and challenges, so did Harry Potter’s audience. With Azkaban, Cuarón was able to see into the future while understanding that the Potter films needed to withstand the test of time across generations.