Boasting a moodier tone, a distinct aesthetic and a surprisingly resolute narrative, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban successfully tightropes its way from family feature to dark fantasy drama whilst never losing sight of what made the series so great to begin with. In many ways, Prisoner of Azkaban is one of the most important in the Potter universe, foreshadowing key events to come whilst successfully delivering a stand-alone adventure in the same vein as the previous films.
Now in his third year, Harry Potter begins his adventures, as per usual, with the Dursleys. After blowing up his Aunt Petunia and watching her float away, Harry is picked up by the Knight Bus and reunited with Ron and Hermione, just in time for school to start. It’s here they learn the murderous Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban and is currently en-route to Harry’s location. As the film progresses Harry finds the truth far more shocking than he ever realized as he sees everything he knew turned upside down, leading to a clever third act to round things out.
With a deliberately muted colour palette this time around, Prisoner of Azkaban is a much more serious, moody film than what’s come before. From the unforgiving snow and bleak mist through to torrential rain and thunderstorms, Director Alfonso Cuarón brings a unique style to the Harry Potter universe, using weather as a way of symbolizing emotion. There’s a real understanding here between the main narrative and the themes too, with the whomping willow used as a placeholder to show these changing seasons and moods. It’s such a clever idea and despite the continuity around the actual placement of the tree itself (being outside the grounds rather than inside) you really get a sense for the size of Hogwarts and the growing sense of loneliness Harry feels.
Thematically, there’s a lot of good stuff to take from this film too, including strong doses of isolation, fear and, as previously mentioned, loneliness. Of course, all of this is backed up by some decent symbology too, used cleverly here in the form of the mystics class Harry takes with Professor Trelawney. All of this spills over to the darker musical score as well. Lower on the scale and making use of big, sweeping string segments against ominous minor-key numbers, John Williams never fails to disappoint and here he conjures up another magical soundtrack to accompany the film.
The Prisoner of Azkaban showcases the pinnacle of what Harry Potter is all about and it does so with such visual flair that it makes the 2 hour 20 minute run-time fly by. There’s certainly lot going on but the big reveals and plot twists are well-spaced and genuinely surprising, backed up by a good use of humour that’s cleverly implemented through the film and never falls into slapstick buffoonery like the Chamber of Secrets. Out of all the Harry Potter films, Prisoner of Azkaban is the one that turned the series from a mildly enjoyable family feature to the worldwide phenomenon it is now. It’s not perfect but it is a very good film in its own right, able to be enjoyed as a standalone adventure or as a collective whole, making it the most accessible and most important of all the films in this franchise.