You know how I mentioned the first two movies felt really weird compared to the rest of the series? Yeah, that’s because of this movie.
Prisoner of Azkaban is where the Harry Potter movies really found their identity. The stories start walking a finer line between whimsical and dark. The pacing is better. The visuals are more impressive, although they do rely more on CGI than the previous two. Fuck, dude, even the jokes in this movie are better! This is just a really solid movie!
After inflating Uncle Vernon’s sister like a balloon (whoops), Harry once again leaves the Dursleys and makes his way back to Hogwarts. This year, however, tensions are high in the world of wizards, as infamous murderer Sirius Black has escaped Azkaban. In response, the Ministry has forced Hogwarts to take the Dementors, wraiths that consume positive emotions and leave only fear in their wake, to patrol the grounds. Why? Because Sirius, one of Voldemort’s most devout spies, is probably after our boy Harry!
The story in this movie is rock solid. The three new characters, Lupin, Sirius, and Pettigrew, are all fantastic characters that serve the story incredibly well. Pettigrew is a great twist-villain who adds plenty to this movie and the story going forward. Lupin is easily the best DATDA character and his relationship with Sirius makes for a great twist. Sirius is my favorite of the three; he seems unhinged and psychotic, but then you see the softer and gentler side of him and you can’t help but root for him.
Even the time travel plotline makes sense! Granted, I grew up on Doctor Who, so I’ve become numb to dumb time travel shenanigans. But when you break it down, the time travel in this movie is pretty good! I like how it treats time like an unchangeable loop rather than a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff. It’s foreshadowed incredibly nicely and the payoff is just as satisfying.
Although the existence of the Time Turner itself is a huge problem. A very stupid problem with an easy solution that lead to the dumbest books I’ve ever read. But forget that and let’s move on.
Also: Harry actually tries to be a wizard in this movie! It only took three films, but our protagonist, the wizard, is trying to learn more powerful magic! He’s done swinging oil lamps and burning people with his touch (I’ll never get over how barbaric the ending of Sorcerer’s Stone was)! Watching him actually grow and do something impressive with magic is incredibly fun and satisfying!
A major problem the previous two movies had was with the pacing. Because let’s face it: a lot of the scenes in those movies dragged. Only about 60% or 70% of their runtimes were filled with scenes that were engaging and entertaining. The rest was just dull, for lack of a better word. Hell, even the later movies have this problem!
This is the only Harry Potter movie that is consistently engaging from beginning to end. Every scene grips you, sucks you into the story and the world. None of them feel like a waste of time; they each add to the story, sometimes in shockingly subtle ways.
Most of that is on the part of the visuals. This movie loves long takes. And a lot of them are really clever! Take the scene with Ridiculous scene, for example. We start with a shot of the students reflected in the mirror. The camera zooms into the mirror (which is another thing this movie loves), then whirls around to focus on the kids. In the first half of that shot in the mirror, Hermione wasn’t there. Then, when it turns to face them all, it zooms out and reveals her standing there. An incredibly subtle and entirely visual way to hint at her time-traveling shenanigans.
It also goes a long way in creating emotion. Take the scene with the boys eating the weird animal candies. At first glance, this scene seems pointless; just a bunch of teenage boys being teenage boys. It’s bright, it’s warm, the colors are comforting, and it’s fun.
But then you pan out through the window. The colors and laughter become distant. The orange and red becomes black and blue. Frost gathers on the window. There, just outside, looming over the castle like the shadow of a mountain, are the dementors. A cold, terrifying force of evil, separated from our heroes by nothing more than a pane of glass. The contrast is absolutely brilliant and goes a long way in making the Dementors feel genuinely terrifying and demonic.
Although there is one shot that isn’t absolutely genius. And unfortunately, it is the last shot of the movie. I dunno who looked at this in the editing room and said “Yeah, that’s good!” but they’re a dummy. Granted, this shit is hilarious, so I can forgive it. But… seriously?
This is also the movie where the series turned away from practical effects in favor of CGI. Now, the series was never a stranger to CGI. And to be fair: it doesn’t look bad in this movie. But it’s still sad to see them go. Especially after the incredible basilisk puppet we got in Chamber of Secrets.
Oh yeah, and the music is great. It’s a Harry Potter movie. They’ve all got good music. Point made. Moving on.
Now, I don’t want to spend too much time on the cast. At this point, all the kids have settled into a groove and now act consistently well. Sure, they have an off line every now and then, especially Daniel Radcliffe. But their performances are overall solid enough to forgive. Plus, the adult actors more than make up for it, being consistently great.
This is the movie where we get Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. Now, I know this is a huge point of contention, since he doesn’t act like book Dumbledore or Richard Harris’ version. But personally, I don’t see that as a bad thing. Frankly, I like this version of the character better! He’s got a more commanding presence whenever he’s on-screen. He feels like the supremely powerful wizard we’re lead to believe he is. Although he does come off as a bit of an asshole sometimes.
So, we went from the kindly old man to the grumpy old man. Sick.
God damn, dude, this movie is so good! It’s honestly shocking to me how much better this one is than all the others in the series. It is, from beginning to end, an absolutely incredible movie. It’s the highlight of any Harry Potter marathon and a great movie to watch on its own. If any movie in this series is going to be remembered as a classic, it’s going to be this one.
Although all of them have gotten that pass already. Despite J.K.’s best efforts.