After putting everything he had into Chamber Of Secrets – “blood, sweat and tears,” as he put it – Chris Columbus decided that he wouldn’t return for the third instalment. He stayed on as a producer, but as the series moved into its regular 18 month cycle of releasing, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban needed a new director.
The studio’s choices included Guillermo del Toro, who baulked at how the film was “so bright and happy and full of light”, and Marc Forster, who didn’t want to direct children again so soon after making Finding Neverland.
It came down to a final short-list of Kenneth Branagh (who had co-starred in the previous instalment as Gilderoy Lockhart), Alfonso Cuarón (A Little Princess) and Callie Khouri (Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood and screenwriter of Thelma And Louise). Eventually, Cuarón was appointed, and the director is largely credited with energising the series.
This is the first story in the series that doesn’t feature an appearance by Lord Voldemort, instead focusing on Sirius Black as an antagonist for much of the film. Black has escaped the wizarding prison, Azkaban, an act thought to be impossible. All indications are that he wants to avenge the Dark Lord by killing Harry Potter.
After a small indiscretion at Privet Drive that involves the inflation of his aunt, Marge Dursley, Harry storms out and soon finds himself staying at the Leaky Cauldron pub. Here’s a thing though – the films never really explain why the Dursleys accept Harry back each year. You’d think they’d have moved house to get away from the insanity of his lifestyle by now.
Warned of Black’s intentions, Harry returns to Hogwarts to find it guarded by the sentinels of Azkaban – vile magical creatures called Dementors. As Dementors feed on unhappy memories and past traumas, they have a more profound effect on Harry than anybody else, and with the help of the new Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin, he must learn to fight his fear.
Cuarón’s influence on the series is immediately obvious. The film has a darker, more sophisticated palette, and cinematographer Michael Seresin brings in a desaturated look that’s worlds away from the first two instalments.
Not that the Dementors weren’t creepy creations on the page, but their realisation on film is even more chilling. Cuarón initially wanted to create them using puppetry, but when he fell back on CGI, the practical tests influenced the movement of the special effects.
They’re never more effectively deployed than in the film’s stunning “Quidditch in the rain” sequence, the first and only time that Quidditch has ever actually looked dangerous in this series. The reds and yellows of the Gryffindor and Hufflepuff players are muted and drowned in the downpour. It’s chaotic, and brilliant.
And yet the film simultaneously seems more colourful than before, just by the greater use of contrast. The purple triple-decker Knight Bus blazes a bullet-time trail through Muggle London, and we finally see something of the ominously named Forbidden Forest during daylight hours.
Cuarón also keeps a huge sense of fun about the film, though. It’s a cheekier, more mischievous film than before, and crucially, the humour is more hit than miss this time around. The jokes from the page, like the Monster Book of Monsters being an actual monster, and Emma Thompson’s portrayal of the clairvoyant Trelawney, are given space, and the invented stuff isn’t cheesy.
The visual depth of the thing is stunning. The production design and special effects are great as always, especially with the seemingly completely new geography of Hogwarts, but there’s so much stuff going on in the background, too. Take the moving portraits on the walls, for instance – apropos of nothing, there’s a huge giraffe wandering through several of them in one shot.
This is also the film that finally finds something to do for everyone in that big old ensemble cast. Even Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, gradually maturing as performers, have more to do as Ron and Hermione bicker bitterly about her new pet cat terrorising Ron’s scruffy old pet rat, Scabbers.
As ever, Harry is at the centre of the film, but his relationship with series newcomer David Thewlis as Lupin is the emotional heart of the film. Lupin is a connection to Harry’s parents, and the friendship between the two is refreshing after two films of DADA teachers trying to maim or kill our hero.
Having gone to school with Snape, the arrival of Lupin and, of course, Sirius Black gives Alan Rickman a meatier part as well. He’s present throughout this one in a way that some later films would neglect, and the same can be said for Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid, whose latest pet monster has been wrongfully sentenced to death by the Ministry of Magic.
As in the book, Dumbledore is less prominent this time around, and it comes at a time when Michael Gambon had just inherited the role. Ian McKellen and Peter O’Toole were mooted to replace the late Richard Harris, but Gambon’s interpretation of the role, developed more in the later sequels, is immediately a welcome spin on the character.
But mainly, the focus on the adult cast makes for the scene I’m calling “The Best Scene In Harry Potter”. Well, the best so far, anyway. It comes in a haunted house called the Shrieking Shack, with the revelation that Scabbers, aka Peter Pettigrew, framed Sirius Black for selling out Harry’s parents, with Lupin realising the truth and Snape having been knocked out by a spell from Harry.
Just remember who plays those characters. Thewlis is Lupin, Rickman is Snape, Gary Oldman is Sirius and Timothy Spall is Pettigrew. These four acting titans come together in one brilliant scene, lending more gravitas to its revelations than you might have thought possible. Our lead trio seem to shrink to one side of the room as these actors do battle with one another.
In terms of adaptation, the film is less faithful to the novel than Columbus’ films, with JK Rowling having permitted screenwriter Steve Kloves to deviate from the story slightly, as long as Cuarón maintained its tone. The result is a film that runs at two hours and 15 minutes, and is much more pacey than expected.
The abrupt tonal shifts from scene to scene are fixed by some great interstitials in between scenes. Updates on what the Whomping Willow is doing over each season convey the passage of time at Hogwarts much better than ever before. But as much as it whips along, the adaptation still isn’t perfect.
One of the only omissions from the books you’ll ever hear me complain about in this series is the excision of the Marauders’ back-story. Harry comes into possession of the Marauders’ Map, an enchanted bit of parchment that shows him where everybody is in Hogwarts, created by Messrs Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs, aka Lupin, Pettigrew, Sirius and Harry’s father.
Still, having read the books, I know that back-story already. And having read the books, I really think they could have chopped out the original resolution. In a film as creative as this, it’s almost disappointing to see Hermione pull out a Time Turner when all seems lost, making the ending a tad like Back To The Future Part II.
It’s not that the time travel scenes aren’t well done, but the Time Turner was a contrivance that Rowling had to write her way out of in later books, when time travel might also have been useful. And in the film, it serves to add another 20 minutes onto a film that, up to that point, was ripping along brilliantly. I can’t complain about Cuarón’s execution of the scene, but then that goes for the whole film too.
In each of these reviews, my plan is to single out a brilliant element of the production, and at this stage, it has to be John Williams’ score. Prisoner Of Azkaban was the last Harry Potter film for which Williams composed and conducted a score, but his themes resonate throughout the series. His work here is the best of his three scores – he goes out on a high with the themes created here.
While none of the films in this series are perfect, Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban is the closest it gets. The sumptuous visuals of the first two films were finally matched with the series’ best screenplay and a visionary director who really nailed down the magic of the story.
It’s an ambitious re-imagining of the series thus far, but it only ever over-exerts itself in its last act. Alfonso Cuarón balances his seemingly unbridled creativity with the poignancy of certain story developments, and most importantly, a sense of mirth and mischief. This is the closest any of the films has ever gotten to matching the tone of the early books in Rowling’s saga.
His greatest contribution to the series, more than the visual reinvention, or the creative adaptation or anything else in this smashing film, is that he seemed to convince Warner Bros to take more risks. After Cuarón, no hired-gun directors would do. The autonomy afforded to his successors is undoubtedly the reason why the films have not only been profitable, but also consistent in quality.
Although Cuarón went on to make the exquisite Children Of Men instead, he set the stage admirably for Harry’s fourth year. The Goblet Of Fire would arguably become the fulcrum of the whole series, after which the story is never the same again.