These notes on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban were written by Matt St. John, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of this third chapter in the Harry Potter saga will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series salute to film music composer John Williams on February 19 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art.
By Matt St. John
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the titular young hero still attends wizard school in a magic castle, he still fears the legendary evil wizard Voldemort, and he still bears his trademark glasses and lightning-bolt scar. But some things have changed between years two and three at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry Potter is taller, his hair is messier, and he’s much quicker to express himself (especially his anger). And the world around him is different, too. Director Alfonso Cuarón keeps many of the basic design elements established in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), both directed by Chris Columbus, but Cuarón also makes notable changes that shift the direction of the series for its remaining five films.
Cuarón’s arrival to big-budget franchise filmmaking was welcomed by critics, who often took the occasion of reviewing Prisoner of Azkaban to relay their negative thoughts about Columbus, even though both earlier Harry Potter films were well-received upon their release. While Slate’s David Edelstein designates Columbus a “genial Hollywood company man” in one of the more generous references to his work, the A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias calls him a “hack auteur,” and the Atlantic’s Christopher Orr refers to Columbus as “the corporate sentimentalist who gave us such explorations of contemporary domesticity as Stepmom, Mrs. Doubtfire, Adventures in Babysitting, and the Home Alone movies.” Cuarón was also no stranger to a general audience, having directed a family film, 1995’s A Little Princess. But his better-known works, like the 2001 coming-of-age drama Y Tu Mamá También, suggested a moodier adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s enormously popular novels, or at least a departure from Columbus’s vision.
Like the first two films, Prisoner of Azkaban contains sequences that joyfully explore the magical world (candy that makes you roar like a lion! snowball fights with invisible cloaks!), but Cuarón’s film is much darker than the prior entries in both narrative and stylistic terms. The characters certainly faced danger before, but the threat of escaped murderer Sirius Black hangs over this entire film. His raving mugshot appears frequently in magical posters, reminding us that Harry is being hunted––and the hunter is terrifying. The newly arrived protectors at Hogwarts, the soul-sucking Dementors, offer little comfort. Danger and darkness lurk around the edges of Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, but Cuarón fully embraces them in the tone and look of Harry’s world, reinforcing Rowling’s shift to a more frightening story for this novel. While Prisoner of Azkaban does not have the grit or intensity of other Cuarón films like 2006’s Children of Men (this is still a PG-rated family film, after all), Harry and his friends often explore ominous, mysterious environments. In an American Cinematographer interview, cinematographer Michael Seresin states, “It's a dangerous world, even for a wizard, and the film's look had to suggest that… The lighting is moodier, with more shadowing and cross-lighting." He claims that his goal with the visual style was to be “as dramatic as could be without it starting to look like Seven.” John Williams also adds some drama with his new music for the film, in the third and final time he would compose the score for the Harry Potter series. The sweeping, classical themes of the first two films are joined by compositions with medieval instruments, like the festive welcome-back-to-school anthem “Double Trouble,” featuring lyrics that might be familiar from Macbeth.
Cuarón manages to make Hogwarts not only darker for Harry’s third year, but also more magical. Unlike the memorable sequences of students learning to transform animals or repot creepy plants in the first two films, magic is usually not the focus of a scene. The film has less Quidditch and less wizarding classroom time; its magic is casual, not always about instruction or competition. Cuarón’s Hogwarts is so embedded with magic that it can become mundane even for its young characters. Chairs overturn themselves as the Leaky Cauldron closes up, quills write on parchment on their own, and moving photographs and paintings appear briefly in the background as characters pass them by. There’s plenty of wonder for us to see, but it isn’t always underlined in a way that demands a reaction. This approach grants even greater impact to Cuarón’s few emphases on magic, especially Harry’s aerial tour of Hogwarts on the majestic eagle-horse hybrid creature Buckbeak––a sequence that also allows the audience to observe the beautiful, newly expanded terrain of the Hogwarts’ grounds.
Prisoner of Azkaban’s Hogwarts may look and feel more magical and mysterious, but it fortunately remains home to an extended cast of compelling characters played by both franchise veterans and rookies. The supporting lineup of adult actors continues to be excellent, with return performers like Alan Rickman (Severus Snape) and Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall) joined by impressive additions. Michael Gambon assumes the role of Albus Dumbledore after Richard Harris’s death, bringing spontaneity and mischief to a part previously defined by kind, quiet wisdom. Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, David Thewlis as Remus Lupin, and Emma Thompson as Sybill Trelawney also appear for the first time in the series, expanding the always-growing roster of great actors occupying Hogwarts. The young stars, Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), also show considerable improvement in their performances, adding dimension to their emotional experience of the wizarding world, after the delighted awe that dominated (and charmed) in the earlier films.
Perhaps part of the teen actors’ improvement results from their ability to appear and behave more like real young people in this film. Harry, Ron, and Hermione spend more of their third year at Hogwarts in contemporary clothing, with striped sweaters, ringer tees, and track jackets frequently replacing the familiar black robes that Hogwarts students wore throughout Columbus’s films. Even in their official Hogwarts uniforms, the students look more like actual teenagers, as Cuarón encouraged them to wear the outfits as they really would––untucked shirts and loosened ties offer a hint of the rebellious attitudes developing in the young witches and wizards.
There’s magic in the spells, the mythical beasts, and the enchanted objects, but Cuarón is also devoted to the fundamental wonders of an exciting (and terrifying) adventure populated by endearing characters. More than any of the Harry Potter films before or after it, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban presents a universe saturated with magic, making it the most engaging, thrilling installment in the series.