In which the Harry Potter franchise hits a major turn. At this point, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson were hitting puberty, just the right age to start genuinely developing their characters as people. The perfect age for a story as full of darker themes and situations as Prisoner of Azkaban. As the characters grew, their sense of discovery became tempered by the darker shade of the events around them. But these kids are only starting to mature and they’re already accustomed to giant creatures chasing them, conspiracy and death at every corner. Of course, it would only get worse as Hogwarts proved itself to be the most unsafe school in the history of fiction with every passing year.
Seriously, Hogwarts is about as big a health risk as jumping off a bridge. The Harry Potter main setting does about as much damage to its students physically as it does psychologically. None of the staff apparently gets a background check (especially for the Defense Against the Dark Arts class). There’s no real night time security except for an old janitor, his cat & grim reaper looking ghosts that apparently can’t be controlled. The children are given reality altering time travel tools simply to be over stimulated by classes. This is some reckless shit that would get any private school shut down in a second. The last bit with the Time Turner is one of the bigger universe breaking aspects. A device that is explained away in the books but never in any subsequent film. It’s an eyesore continuity wise, but not enough to ruin this world too harshly… especially since no one here cares too much about danger.
No, danger is of no concern at Hogwarts. For Harry Potter it’s just business as usual. Even with a new version of Dumbledore in place. Michael Gambon – taking over for the late Richard Harris – steps into the role quite well. While being slightly more active in how he carries himself, Gambon still keeps that slightly mischievous spirit with more of a skip in his step that provides Hogwarts with that unpredictable… let’s call it “charm” that’s simultaneously more intimidating and more human than Harris’ version. Speaking of Hogwarts staff, there’s also a new staff member in the form of Professor Trelawney, with her oddly prescient predictions. Emma Thompson has a sort of Doc Brown-style controlled madness to the part, perfectly balancing enough restraint to hone her eccentricities. Plus, it’s nice to see Hermione so doubtful of a teacher.
Our familiar trio progresses along the near-lethal corridors with grace. Harry Potter himself has clearly hit his pubescent rebellious stage, starting right from Aunt Marge. This opener is a perfect example of new director Alfonso Cuaron‘s ability to balance a darker concept with a playful tone, as the disturbing notion of a woman being blown out to balloon portions and rising out the door is treated for oddly delightful comedic effect. Through Harry’s sarcastic reactions and defiant attitude towards his aunt, we see that Harry is starting to be his own man, not just one of many faceless students at Hogwarts. It’s Harry’s first ascension into being more than a vague legend, but an actual dimensional person willing to stand up for himself rather than scrape by. The stakes are higher and the innocence begins to fall by the wayside.
This rubs off on Ron and Hermione quite nicely. All three were purposefully seen wearing their school robes far less than the other two films, showing more of a sense of personality and defiance. There’s Hermione’s pink hoodie that gives her less rigidity, Harry’s darker track suit that visually mirrors his personal isolation and Ron’s goofy hand-me-down sweaters that emphasize his detached upbringing. Harry Potter works as well as it does usually because these three are the rock that allows us to relate to these otherworldly surroundings, something Cuaron recognized and evolved from Chris Columbus’ smaller films. Even with the way this story was structured, there’s a bit more of a looseness to the characters while raising the stakes higher and higher. As Ron and Hermione hint at a potential love connection, Buckbeak makes his grave mistake that becomes integral to the plot. That constant tide between finding yourself and snapping back to the awful reality right in front of you fuels the directions this series will continue on.
Given what’s going on during his third year, Harry Potter and his friends have every right to be fearful of their surroundings. An escaped killer who ends up being his godfather on the loose; a teacher who turns out to be a werewolf; Ron’s rat turns out to be the guy who… ratted Harry’s father out in disguise. Get it? Cause he’s a… rodent. Anyway, it’s a stressful time for that school, full of all sorts of well realized new threats that put the previous ones to shame. There’s a great contrast just in the transitional moments, where the Whomping Willow – a threat that nearly got out heroes killed last term – is mainly an indicator of the seasons changing while The Dementors roam around every inch of Hogwarts. The Dementors themselves are one of JK Rowling’s most disturbing creatures. Grim Reaper-style specters that roam looking for souls to suck out and keep the bodies alive as husks. Their actions are metaphors for the regrets people leave behind, allowing them to wallow in their past as husks of what they could be, just like Harry does with the prospect of being with his parents. Something he can never do, but seeks so badly as a child.
Yet, the joy of every Harry Potter story is Harry growing accustomed to his savior role while keeping loyal friends around. There’s the mainstays of Hagrid, Hermione and Ron who go to great lengths to help him despite their own problems, but there are newcomers who give Harry solace and keep him on his toes. There’s Remus Lupin, who teaches him the inner strength of his Patroneous while constantly imploring him to use more careful reason. David Thewlis has the right mixture of authority and regret that makes him an effective surrogate uncle for Harry. He’s willing to let Harry discover his abilities, but wants to keep him somewhat in line. Of course, that serves as an ironic indication given his true nature as an uncontrollable lycanthrope.
That irony is hinted at a few times. First, the dog Harry sees near start. While more specifically identified as a certain person later, this is the first hint at transformation that will later blow Scabbers out of proportion. This continues during the Riddikulus scene, one of the better examples of how playfully dangerous the Potterverse could be. Each child attempting to make the scary something silly shows this delightful comedic energy that was rarely seen in the series before or since. Using the silliness to deflate a serious threat. The imagery even manages to hold up thanks to a blend of practical and CG effects work, particularly with the giant jack in the box. It gives us insight into the various side characters of the Potterverse while providing a solid sense of levity and mystery to for the main plot. The type of playfulness that eases us into the darkness of this universe… and Alan Rickman in a terrible dress.
Of course, on the grounds but hidden from plain sight is a crucial character for Harry to confront: Sirius Black. For most of the Azkaban, he’s a mythical side character relegated by his murderous reputation. One that Harry obviously takes personally. He’s part of the lore Harry has heard about with his parents, but unspecified enough for Harry to treat as this vessel to discovery and revenge. It’s a powerful emotional state for a youth, one that changes on a dime once Black reveals his true intentions. Gary Oldman has often been pigeonholed into maniacal roles, but as Sirius in Azkahban he shows off so many more facets of his personality. One of the more beautiful moments in the entire series is Black seeing Hogwarts again for the first time in ages. There’s an optimism there that’s clouded in regret and tragedy, especially from the perspective of one aware of what will happen shortly.
Harry Potter tends to work best as it shows true progression for its leads. As a film, Azkahban is a true turning point. Not only are the kids dealing with much more mature situations, but the film slowly starts to shave or contort elements stylistically. The Whomping Willow is no longer a scary domineering figure but a neutral force of nature. John Williams’ usual whimsical score is much more nuanced and eerie here, indicating a first loss of innocence. Scabbers has become a hideous agent of evil from Harry’s past Peter Pettigrew (briefly played with ratty characteristics by Timothy Spall). These kids are aware their environment isn’t as trustworthy as each other. They’re the ones who save Buckbeak and Sirius without the help of adults. If anything, the adults here usually make things worse. You just have to use your magic map or clear wit or… time travel necklace. All the essentials.
Alfonso Cuaron’s direction does such an incredible job of selling the scope of this world with some of his more private intimate scenes. Namely, the scenes of Harry flying on Buckbeak. For an isolated moment, in the middle of all this danger, Harry has an escape. A true awareness of how isolated one can feel in this vast environment and how that can be alright every once in awhile. This is a moment for Harry to be a person and soak up the brief moment of serenity he shares with this magical creature. This helps make the moments of true confrontation play out immensely well. Cuaron plays on the scrappiness of these children starting to fend for themselves. Even to the point of a finale time loop, that sense of isolation feeds into Harry’s self preservation skills. Hermione and Ron can’t help him and his parents won’t be much more beyond a heartfelt memory. Even if this whole thing ends with the child like glee of Harry on a new toy, danger still lurks around every corner to corrupt all of this. But we’ll get to that… whenever we reach for a goblet to drink from.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Animatronic Toads
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