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Sirius Black: It’s cruel that I got to spend so much time with James and Lily, and you so little. But know this; the ones that love us never really leave us. And you can always find them in here.
[points his finger at an open DustyReviews.com tab on his tablet]
This film is based on J. K. Rowling’s 1999 novel of the same name, and both are the third installment of their respective mediums from the Harry Potter franchise.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: J.K. Rowling, Steve Kloves
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman
Release Date: June 4, 2004 (United States)
Run time: 2 hours, 22 minutes
After his second year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter spends another dissatisfying summer with the Dursleys. On his thirteenth birthday, Vernon’s visiting sister Marge viciously insults Harry and his parents, and an angry Harry causes her to inflate and float away. Expecting to be expelled for using magic outside school, Harry flees with his belongings.
The Knight Bus takes Harry to the Leaky Cauldron, where Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge assures Harry that he will not be punished. Reuniting with his best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, Harry learns that Sirius Black, a convicted supporter of Lord Voldemort, has escaped Azkaban Prison and intends to kill him. During the journey to Hogwarts, the Hogwarts Express is boarded by Dementors, ghostly prison guards searching for Black. One enters Harry’s compartment, causing him to faint, but new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin repels it with a Patronus Charm. At Hogwarts, Headmaster Albus Dumbledore announces that Dementors will patrol the school until Black is captured.
Rubeus Hagrid is appointed Care of Magical Creatures teacher, but his first class goes awry when Draco Malfoy provokes a Hippogriff named Buckbeak into attacking him, and his father, Lucius, has Buckbeak sentenced to death. Returning to Gryffindor Tower, the students find the Fat Lady’s portrait has been attacked, and the terrified Fat Lady warns Dumbledore that Black entered the castle. During a stormy Quidditch match, Dementors cause Harry to fall off his broomstick, which is destroyed by the Whomping Willow. He is caught trying to visit Hogsmeade by Fred and George, who give him The Marauder’s Map.
Using the map, Harry sneaks into Hogsmeade and learns that Black is his godfather, but divulged the Potters’ whereabouts to Voldemort and murdered their mutual friend Peter Pettigrew. Determined to ward off the Dementors, Harry convinces Lupin to teach him the Patronus Charm. After Divination class, he witnesses Professor Trelawney enter a trance and prophesies that the Dark Lord will return. Watching Buckbeak’s execution, Ron’s pet rat Scabbers bites him and escapes, but a large black dog drags them both into a hole at the base of the Whomping Willow. This leads the trio through an underground passage into the Shrieking Shack, where the dog is revealed to be Black, an Animagus who can transform into an animal.
Lupin appears, embracing Black as an old friend before revealing himself to be a werewolf. Snape arrives to apprehend Black, but is knocked out by Harry’s Disarming spell. Lupin and Black reveal that Scabbers is actually the Animagus form of Pettigrew, who betrayed Harry’s parents, faked his death and framed Black for his own crimes. Turning Pettigrew back into human form, the group heads back to the castle, but the full moon causes Lupin to transform and Pettigrew escapes. As Black fights off Lupin in their animal forms, Dementors attack Black and Harry, but an unseen figure casts a powerful Patronus. Harry falls unconscious, awakening in the infirmary with Dumbledore and Hermione.
Learning that Black has been captured and sentenced to the Dementor’s Kiss, Harry and Hermione act on Dumbledore’s advice and use Hermione’s Time-Turner, which she was given to attend several classes at once, to go three hours back in time. They see themselves reliving the night’s events, and set Buckbeak free from execution. Spotting the past Harry and Black being attacked by Dementors, Harry rescues them using a Patronus charm and realizes he was the unseen figure who saved them earlier. He and Hermione free Black, who flies away on Buckbeak, still a fugitive without proof of his innocence. Harry and Hermione return to the infirmary, rejoining their own timeline.
Exposed as a werewolf, Lupin resigns from teaching and returns the Marauder’s Map to Harry. Black sends Harry a Firebolt broomstick, which he happily takes on a ride.
The Prisoner of Azkaban is the third installment in the Harry Potter film franchise, and it makes the beginning of a few significant changes in the series going forward. Alfonso Cuarón takes over the director’s chair from Chris Columbus. Michael Gambon takes over the role of Albus Dumbledore from the late Richard Harris. More generally, though, the look and tone of the franchise makes a shift in this film from being a colorful children’s movie setting, quite faithful to the book source material, into a darker and moodier setting, less explicitly faithful to the source material but aiming instead to hit the mood of the books, instead. In my opinion, it largely succeeds. Prisoner of Azkaban captures much of the mood of the book from which it is based. The film has a strongly gothic feel, with a tone that is moody, ominous, and filled with a sense that there is much in this world that remains to be discovered. If the first two films present a colorful world where an Albus Dumbledore might exist, this film depicts a shadowy world in which a Lord Voldemort might also exit. To a great degree, the director achieves this tone shift by spending more of the film’s time outside of the castle. The audience sees a lot of the gothic-looking castle architecture, from the outside, and the shadowy grounds that surround it, and it effectively captures a lo tof the book’s mood by making this change. A tonal shift was a necessary adjustment to a film franchise where the looming menace of the Dark Lord needs to feel threatening rather than campy.
Some of the changes felt unnecessary to me, though. For instance, dressing the students in muggle garb, rather than wizards robes, felt like a missed opportunity to add to the gothic environment that Cuarón was creating. Apparently the director believed that it would be easier to express the personalities of the characters on screen, in street clothes, but in my opinion, the decision did not add enough visually to justify the change. Much of that characterization was accomplished by the “everyone needs a haircut” look of the cast from the shoulders up. The film also spends much less time with Quidditch than prior films or the books. I suspect that this was mostly a change, made due to run time, but as playing the sport is so central to Harry’s identity, losing that from the film took something from Harry’s characterization. The removal of Quidditch from the larger story (we didn’t see Gryffindor win the House Cup!) also paved the way for the film’s final scene – probably my least favorite in the entire franchise (you’ll see why below.) As Quidditch is not a focus in the story, the movie opts to let Harry receive his famous Firebolt broom just before the credits begin to roll.
As usual for the Harry Potter films, the visual effects were extraordinary for their time period – nearly twenty years ago now for Prisoner of Azkaban – and many of the effects still look very good even by today’s standards. I was particularly impressed with the detail in the presentation of Buckbeak. Lupin’s transformation into a werewolf was not as good, by today’s standards, but it was not in any way distracting, either. Peter Pettigrew’s rat transformations are also dated, though they too still look pretty good.
The film introduces a few new characters to the franchise. Remus Lupin is Harry’s new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, and he is portrayed by David Thewlis. I really enjoyed this performance and Thewlis’s portrayal perfectly captures my interpretation of the character from the source material. Lupin is intellectual, with a reserved but warm personality, while still giving some tantalizing hints that he might have been a bit more mischievous in his youth. Sirius Black is also introduced, played by Gary Oldman, who is characteristically brilliant. Black is more emotional than Lupin, more dangerous, but also warmer once the truth is revealed. Oldman’s Sirius Black exudes a love for Harry that you would expect from Harry’s late father’s best friend.
Though he is not introducing a new character, Gambon’s Dumbledore is a much different portrayal than the one played by Richard Harris. Gambon gives us a more forceful and less whimsical Headmaster. He presents the side of the aged wizard, from the books, that emerges when a fight is needed, but his Albus is not someone you might expect to have such a sweet tooth that his passwords reflect his favorite candies. His Dumbledore works within the film franchise quite well, given his role as the leader of the opposition to the Dark Lord, but I do not think this take on the character is what Rowling had in mind when writing him.
Prisoner of Azkaban presents J.K. Rowling’s conception of time travel and I have to say that hers is one of the best uses of that plot device I have seen anywhere. In the story, the time travel changes nothing. Everything Harry and Hermione do with the time turner had already happened. Buckbeak did not die the first time through. Their time-traveling selves were there, too, out of view, their first time through. However, Harry, Hermione, and the audience do not know what effect the time traveling duo had on the events which were taking place taken place until we experienced the time travel with them. The fun of this approach relates to using the plot device to bring clarity to a confusion that was not too overt initially. The clarifying of perception is particularly fun to consider from Dumbledore’s perspective. He seemed to know the first time through that he needed to buy a time-traveling Harry and Hermione the opportunity to save Buckbeak, and he demonstrates this by intentionally distracting the Minister of Magic. Thus, he seems to know that they are time-traveling before he had given them instructions to time travel. He also knew that they succeeded in saving Buckbeak before they leave on their time travel journey.
Overall, with some small gripes aside, mentioned above, this is a good movie. The pacing is good and the film flew by despite its two plus hours runtime. The visual effects, which were fantastic in the first two films, evolve to meet the changing darker mood of the series. PoA also successfully sets the tone and the stage for the rest of the film franchise going forward. If the first two films are an introduction to the magical world, Prisoner of Azkaban is a reminder that there is still much more to this world we do not yet know, both good and bad.
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14 thoughts on “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)”
Great review! You know, The Prisoner of Azkaban is still the only Harry Potter film I’ve ever seen. I keep meaning to catch up with the films. I did enjoy this film though, thought it was pretty exciting and fun.
Thank you! I have seen the films before, but the experience of watching something critically, as a reviewer, is different than watching with a less engaged mind. So… this was a fun one for me to tackle.
This franchise really did do an excellent job with its films, particularly with its casting choices (even when that differed in some big ways from the source material depiction.) Gary Oldman is quite a bit older than the book’s “Sirius Black” is supposed to be, but he really nails the heart of the character so much that you set that aside. Same thing with Alan Rickman and Snape.
You know, I own these. Maybe I should actually watch them sometime!
You should. I’d love to read your take on them.
Maybe that’ll be my movie project after shrek…
You might want to edit your older HP movie posts so they all use the same tags. There is no way to easily find the first film on your site.
That said, the site menu (top right) should take you right to my movie reviews.
I don’t view your site directly anymore. I use the reader, so I can comment.
There was also a link at the very top of the post to my movies tab, though I admit it is easy to miss.
That said… I do like the idea of direct links to the previously reviewed films in the franchise and I posted those per your advice at the bottom of all HP film reviews. I updated my tags, too.
I’ve watched all the Harry Potter movies a number of times because I used to be a big fan. However, they always felt really badly made compared to the books. Like they could have been so much better if they had made them the way the book was. I felt they made too many changes in the movies and left out too much.
They just announced that they will be making the books into a TV series and I think it will be a lot easier to do a more direct / accurate adaptation in a TV series format. I watched all of the movies before I ever read the books, so I didn’t really realize what was left out until I already had a positive impression of the film franchise.
Now that I do know what they left out, the amount of story that was left out annoys me, but I have to admit I probably would not have wanted to watch a 4-5 hour movie. I probably will happily binge watch 10 hours of television.
I got terrified of this because of the dementors, whomping willow, and that werewolf that Lupin was transformed. Surprisingly, I didn’t know Alfonso Cuarón did this while he did that Oscar winning foreign film, “Roma”. I thought if there was ever gonna be vampires in this instead of dementors and werewolves. True story.
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