Should I Watch..? Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
What's the big deal?
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban is a fantasy film released in 2004 based on the novel by J.K. Rowling and is the only film in the series directed by Mexican Alfonso Cuarón. It is the third film in the Harry Potter series and sees Potter informed of a prisoner involved in the murder of Harry's parents who has escaped custody and is seeking Harry to finish the job. It was the first film in the series to dispense with the overly family-friendly atmosphere of the first two films and is instead a darker and more grown-up affair. It also introduces a raft of new characters, many of whom become important to the overarching story in later films. Naturally, it was a financial success although it was the lowest grossing of the series, taking over just short of $800 million worldwide.
What's it about?
Fed up with living with the Dursleys, Harry runs away from home and winds up on the Knight Bus that speeds him back to Hogwarts just before the start of Harry's third year. Reuniting with best friends Ron and Hermione, they learn that Sirius Black - a legendary inmate of wizard prison Azkaban - has escaped and gone missing. Knowing that Sirius was involved in the death of Harry's parents, the Ministry of Magic insist to Professor Dumbledore that ghostly Dementors are stationed at Hogwarts in order to bring Black back into custody as well as protect Harry.
With a new Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher in the form of kindly Professor Lupin, Harry is forced to develop ever more powerful magic quickly because it soon emerges that the Dementors have a harmful effect on Harry himself. And soon, the inevitable happens - Sirius Black arrives at Hogwarts but who knows for what reason?
Professor Albus Dumbledore
Professor Remus Lupin
Professor Sybil Trelawney
Steve Kloves *
Release Date (UK)
31st May, 2004
Adventure, Fantasy, Mystery
Academy Award Nomination
Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects
What's to like?
Alfonso Cuarón might not be immediately familiar to you but considering his last film before this one was the sexually-charged Mexican road-trip Y Tu Mamá También, his appointment must have seemed a bit of a gamble. It pays off big-time - this feels a much more grown up film than either of the first two and is much better because of it. The atmosphere is wonderfully cold and gothic, matching the spires and corridors of Hogwarts and providing our heroes with their first full-length adventure. The story might not offer much on paper but it becomes a twisting nightmare thanks to those ethereal Dementors which, it has to be said, owe a debt of gratitude to the Nazgûl from Peter Jackson's adaptaion of The Lord Of The Rings but look awesome.
The additions to the cast are all fantastic and slot into the existing set-up as though they were already there from the beginning. Oldman gives a smooth performance as Sirius but Thewlis is a superb Lupin, caught up by his loyalties and his curse. Of course, the regular child cast are as good as they've ever been and just keep getting better. But Gambon has the difficult job of replacing the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore and in truth, you barely notice because his appearance feels natural and correct. The effects are also impressive with werewolves howling in the night and spells retaining their colourful sparks.
- The scene that introduces Buckbeak the Hippogriff contains a shot of the animal pooping. The CG team believe that this is a first anywhere in the world but the BBC did it first during the TV series Walking With Dinosaurs. It is a first such moment in a feature film, however.
- Ian Brown, former lead singer of the Stone Roses, is seen in the pub at the start of the film reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History Of Time. He was due to play the landlord but his role was cut due to timing issues.
- Despite receiving the lowest takings of any Harry Potter film, it actually got more positive reviews than any other Potter film besides The Deathly Hallows - Part Two.
What's not to like?
Younger viewers might find this a bit more frightening than either The Philosopher's Stone or The Chamber Of Secrets but that's OK - the books became more suitable for the reader as they aged and the films perform the same trick. However, as much as I enjoyed this film, I did feel that Hermione's time-travelling trick felt a bit convenient for plot purposes. In short, it felt like a cop-out and yes, I'm aware that it was also in the book but I remain unconvinced. I don't hold it against Rowling if she wrote herself into a corner - God knows, I've done that many times - but surely Hermione could have used it before now.
There is also a hint of teenage hormones in the picture which doesn't seem like it belongs in a world of werewolves and wizards. Harry Potter wouldn't go entirely own the road of Twilight but for those of us wanting more spells and less brooding, it merely feels as though it slows the film's pace down a bit.
Should I watch it?
For me, this is the best so far - it finally has a real sense of danger and tension that had been missing before and Cuarón's flair for projecting teenage lives onto the screen works wonders here. This is the first time that you feels as though you're not watching a kid's film and for that, I can only thank it.
Great For: Potter fans, adolescents, adults ashamed to admit they've been enjoying kid's films
Not So Great For: Tolkien die-hards, action fans
What else should I watch?
If you wanted things to get lighter again, forget it. The next film The Goblet Of Fire is arguably the darkest of the whole series but at least things finally start getting interesting as Voldemort finally makes his first appearance! Of course, both The Philosopher's Stone and The Chamber Of Secrets make excellent family movies but I probably wouldn't make them watch the rest until they're past the age of about 12.
Tolkien fans can gloat all they want about how great The Lord Of The Rings are and rightly so. Each film is epic and lavished with love, care and attention to detail that might be lacking from other fantasy films. They are and will remain the benchmark for the genre for a long time yet, despite Jackson trying again with the ill-advised trilogy based on The Hobbit.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox