Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban sees two major departures for the film franchise. Director and head honcho Chris Columbus is replaced behind the camera by Spanish wunderkind Alfonso Cuarón, and in front on the camera Richard Harris’ untimely death lead to Dumbledore being recast by British stage supremo Michael Gambon. The whole tone of this film is a lot darker than previous instalments, with the subject matter being closer to a horror-thriller.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is on the run from the Ministry of Magic for illegal use of magic when he is picked up by the night bus and taken to see the Minister for Magic, Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy). Fudge explains that the wizarding world is an a panic as notorious murderer and former supporter of the Dark Lord, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from the previously impervious Azkaban prison. He warns Harry to be on his guard as Black could well be looking to avenge his former masters defeat at the hands of the boy who lived.
Alfonso Cuarón takes the bold steps to move away from the Hollywood style of filming that permeates throughout the first two films. In The Prisoner of Azkaban everything seeming darker, more gothic and in many ways a lot like a Tim Burton film. The influence of the new wave of Spanish horror is evident as the dementors make their first appearance in the films and are as creepy and ethereal as they appear in the books. The camera shots are different with scenes fading in and out with a decidedly story-book feel, and all of the action has had the colour drained and there are more dark areas in shot than ever before. It all lends to a far more threatening tone than previously, which is far closer to the books and makes this a far more engrossing movie-going experience.
The Prisoner of Azkaban sees Radcliffe begins to show a more mature approach to his acting, however he is still no where near as good as he needs to be, as each film continues to show that the gamble on his casting was a losing one. Hermione (Emma Watson) improves dramatically in this instalment, with less ‘eyebrow’ acting and far less over-pronunciation than the first two. Ron (Rupert Grint) is still the stand-out performer of the main three, with his comedy timing and encapsulation of the ‘loveable loser’ character so perfectly honed by this point that there can be no doubt that he has a future in films outside of the franchise.
The Prisoner of Azkaban’s supporting cast on the whole is tremendous, with new teacher Professor Tralawney (Emma Thompson) making the most of her limited role, whilst Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) and Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) both excelling as two important characters in Harry’s past and present. In fact the scenes in The Prisoner of Azkaban between Lupin and Harry are some of the best in the film as he assumes the mentor role usually reserved for Dumbledore. It’s a shame that there is no room for the excellent Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), but Snape (Alan Rickman) and Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) both continue to be two of the finest characters in the series.
The whole film feels more at home with it’s subject material and director Alfonso Cuarón may well benefit from the mistakes of the past, but there is no doubt that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is one of the strongest instalments of the series, with far less pomp and ceremony accompanying each scene, which leads to a far more enjoyable movie-going experience. It’s still too long and some elements did not need to be included, but this is as close to the book as the films have got.