Alfonso Cuarón | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG
Prisoner of Azkaban marks a significant turning point for the Harry Potter film series. Viewed now, it’s easy to see it as just Episode 3 of 8; a saga still getting underway. At the time, coming off the back of two incredibly successful films, it felt like a grand shake-up of an established formula.
It’s the first Potter to move away from a Christmassy end-of-year release slot, for one thing, debuting at the height of summer in May. That also made it the first to break the one-per-year release cycle they seemed to be aiming for, which would’ve emulated each film covering a single year of Harry’s time at school. The release date was only 18 months after Chamber of Secrets, but it had an impact — particularly to little Draco Malfoy, who seems to have undergone the majority of puberty in the short time between the end of Chamber and the start of Azkaban. I still remember my shock when he first appeared in the trailer — I thought they’d recast.
Most striking, however, is the new director. Alfonso Cuarón doesn’t ditch the faithfulness to J.K. Rowling’s novels that defined Chris Columbus’ opening pair, but he does ditch the slavishness, and brings a hefty dose of his own stylish directorial skill in the process. Azkaban is a fan favourite among Rowling’s novels, but Cuarón’s preparedness to change things when necessary made the film more of a hate object for some. The wider world had it right, however, because Azkaban was received as the best Potter yet and, I think, was the start of its rehabilitation from a fans-only series of Children’s Films to something that merited across-the-board full marks when Deathly Hallows Part 2 arrived seven years later.
Cuarón and screenwriter Steve Kloves (who would pen every Potter film bar the fifth) focus in on the novel’s plot, ditching its copious world-building and backstory asides. This has both pros and cons. In the former camp, it leaves room for Cuarón to make something more exciting and filmic than Columbus — you can’t imagine the craziness of the Knight Bus in either of the previous films. It also keeps things moving forward, at quite a pace too, rather than meandering off here and there. Even the Quidditch match serves a purpose.
On the downside, it strips away some explanations that not only deepen the series’ world but, in some cases, help it make sense. We never learn the identity of Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs (makers of the ever-so-useful Marauder’s Map), or quite why Harry thought he saw his dad by the lake with the Dementors. The former is only nice detail, I suppose, but the latter event makes much more sense when you know the full explanation from the novel. The story gets by without it, but those unfamiliar with the book who stop to think about things may consider it a plot hole, or at least a leap of logic.
The film introduces two of my favourite characters from the series: Gary Oldman’s Sirius Black and David Thewlis’ Remus Lupin. In slightly different ways they’re both outsiders — underdogs, as it were, if you’ll excuse the pun — but both honourable and powerful… but not as pompous as that poor description makes it sound. The film series doesn’t treat either of them particularly well compared to the books, but then supporting characters and subplots are the first things to go (quite rightly).
The other big cast addition is Michael Gambon, replacing Richard Harris as Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Gambon seemed all wrong when he first turned up, replacing the previous near-perfect casting choice. He’s more familiar now, making it harder to judge which actor is superior; but it’s difficult to imagine Harris getting to grips with some of the cheekier and more active things Dumbledore is called on to do later in the series. Was the requirement to recast a blessing in disguise? Perhaps.
Azkaban was a breath of fresh air when it was released in 2004, really kicking the Potter franchise into life creatively. I know I gave the first two four stars each, but having since watched this and Goblet of Fire, the opening episodes pale in comparison.
Tomorrow, I put my name in the Goblet of Fire…