For me, The Prisoner of Azkaban is where the franchise really gets going. The third instalment directed by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron may have taken the least at the box office so far for a Potter film (a paltry £795 million), yet it’s still the 30th highest grossing film of all time. Regardless of its box office takings, it is undeniably a well crafted and sinister adventure which ratchets up the tension and really kick starts the broader Potter story. For example, the introduction of key players like Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew really gives us a clearer picture of the history regarding Voldemort and Harry’s parents. Cuarón doesn’t worry about keeping the film child-friendly, and injects some much needed darkness intro proceedings after the two Chris Columbus outings. He may have only helmed one Potter movie, but he deserves great credit for giving the franchise a new direction.
Azkaban starts with Harry under his covers at night playing with his wand. Insert your own joke here. After yet another argument with his aunt and uncle, Harry storms out of the house, suitcase in hand, and makes it to the edge of the street before he stops and realises he’s 13 and probably can’t survive out there on his own. Luckily for Harry the Knight Bus turns up and whizzes him through the London night to the Leaky Cauldron. The Knight Bus is a rickety looking old bus with an array of old men spread out snoozing over the seats and a mental driver with a death wish…..essentially it’s like every night bus you’ve ever been on, only this one can speed through the streets undetected by police. Upon arrival at the Leaky Cauldron, Harry is told that Sirius Black, a convicted Voldemort sympathizer, has escaped from Azkaban prison and may well come looking for him. Another vintage year gets under way for the boy Potter.
On the Hogwarts Express, Harry, Ron and Hermione share a cabin with the snoozing Professor Lupin, who we later learn is the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Suddenly, the train comes to a standstill and the lights go out. The train gets boarded by faceless ghouls called Dementors, who are the guards of Azkaban. Harry gets clocked by one of them and after a minor bit of soul-sucking HP begins to pass out. At this point Lupin awakes and repels the Dementor with a Patronus charm.
Upon arrival at Hogwarts, the kids learn that Dumbledore has had to agree to the Dementors being posted at the school for protection against Sirius Black, under orders of the Ministry of Magic. Soon, during a typically violent Quidditch match, the dementors approach Harry yet again, causing him to fall off his broomstick. After this, Lupin, who we are told was friends with Harry’s parents along with Sirius, decides to mentor Harry and teach him the Patronus charm so he can fend the Dementors off.
In their third year, the rest of Harry’s year are now allowed to visit the nearby town Hogsmead, but due to his guardians being, well, child abusing bastards, he doesn’t get permission to go and must wait behind. Fred and George Weasley, the Chuckle Brothers (or maybe Trev and Simon) of Hogwarts, give Harry the ‘Marauder’s Map’ a nifty magical device which shows the reader the whereabouts of any person in Hogwarts as well as all secret passages in and out of the school. Harry uses it to sneak into Hogsmead and whilst there he overhears that Sirius Black was in fact his godfather and despite being his parents good friend, he was convicted of selling them out to Voldermort and killing their mutual friend Peter Pettigrew. Harry becomes determined to gain vengeance.
After the three amigos witness the execution of the Hippogriff Buckbeak, Ron spots his lost pet rat Scabbers and sets off in pursuit. Upon doing so he and the little critter get pulled under a whomping willow tree by a mysterious black dog. Harry and Hermione charge in after them and follow the hidden passage in which they land all the way to the supposedly haunted Shrieking Shack. Once here, it is revealed that the black dog was in fact Sirius Black all along as he is an Animagus (a wizard who can transform into an animal). Harry attacks Black but Lupin bursts in and disarms him at the last second. Lupin reveals that he is in fact a werewolf, but also that Black is innocent of the crimes he was charged with. They then reveal that Scabbers was in fact Peter Pettigrew all along (also an Animagus) and it was he that sold out Harry’s parents to Big Vol not Black. Just then Snape burst into the shack (keep up) and threatens to take Sirius in to the Dementors, but Harry has begun to believe Lupin and Black and knocks Snape out with a spell. He’s going to regret that one.
There are a few more twists and turns at the film’s climax, but I’ve already taken far too long to summarise the plot. As you can tell from the incredibly convoluted explanation I offer, The Prisoner of Azkaban contains a great deal of important narrative developments and does well not only to posses an exciting stand-alone plot of its own, but also to provide so much more info on the Potter saga as a whole. As I alluded to earlier, the arrival of key characters like Black and Pettigrew and a detailed explanation of what happened to Harry’s parents, are valuable nuggets which give the audience a much better idea of the vast scope of story there is still to come.
The director clearly has a good eye for eerie tension and the Dementor’s first attack on the Hogwarts Express in particular is really quite disconcerting. The ghouls closely resemble the Nazgul from Lord of the Rings with flowing black robes and ear-splitting shrieks emanating from their faceless hoods. The Dementors, much like the Nazgul, become a symbol of the persistent threat that follows the young hero around and prove a terrifying menace throughout. Cuarón resists any urge to tone their appearance down to cater to a younger demographic and it hammers home the point that despite being a series of films and books that are primarily aimed at children, the HP series is one filled with danger and death.
In Azkaban we also get our first real glimpse of the influence of the Ministry of Magic. Up until now Hogwarts has seemed to be a fairly autonomous entity with little or no outside interference. In this film however, the Ministry flexes it muscles for the first time and forces Dumbledore to allow the Dementors on site. It’s interesting to see that even in a fantastical wizarding world; we still can’t escape bureaucratic red-tape. The Ministry takes on a much larger importance as the franchise progresses, but this is our first glimpse of the power they wield over Hogwarts.
Speaking of Dumbledore, he looks a bit different in this film, slightly younger if anything, far less decrepit. I just can’t put my finger on what it is……….Wait……is that a new hat?
Another issue that the movie cleverly covers is Lupin’s battle with lycanthropy. Now here I’m afraid I must yet again question Dumbledore’s Defence Against the Dark Arts appointment. Granted, Lupin turns out to be a decent bloke and a good friend to Harry….but he’ still a bleeding werewolf. Just hire a bloody temp Dumbledore! Stop going for these showy wildcard teachers and play it safe. It would save you the inevitable yearly headache brought about by having a clear weirdo in the role.
Good old Draco Malfoy is up to his usual tricks too. I swear he gets more pantomime villain in every film. If this kid fails as a wizard he could make a decent living out of playing Abanazar at the local Palladium. He amps up the thinly-veiled master-race undertones with his venomous jibes at Hermione for being a “filthy little mudblood”, which surely counts as bullying to a fairly large degree. Hogwarts may excel at many things, but instilling discipline is clearly not one of them.
The introduction of even more top British acting talent such as David Thewlis, Timothy Spall and of course the legendary Gary Oldman, is a major bonus for the movie. Each actor manages to create a very believable and real character where in the wrong hands they could so easily have been the opposite. Oldman especially is superb as Sirius Black. Throughout the film, the spectre of Sirius Black hanging over proceedings is expertly done with the audience being convinced that he is a maniacal murderer hell bent on killing Harry. He spends the first two thirds of the film appearing only as a threatening bogeyman screaming down at people from wanted posters, but his influence is still massive. By the final third in which we learn of his wrongful incarceration and his fondness of Harry, he becomes the arch-protector and we begin to feel like Harry finally has a bit of help out there.
The time-travel aspect of the story which comes into play towards the film’s end is skilfully utilised by the director and it proves to be a clever plot device that adds to the appeal of Azkaban as a stand alone film. The intricate plot and intriguing revelations make this Potter movie the high-water mark for me and that is high praise indeed. It’s a shame Alfonso Cuaron didn’t sign up for another instalment but ….we’ll always have Azkaban.