Film Review: 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' (2004)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban marks a change in tone and style from the first two films. It also moves along at a quicker pace; we spend less time with the Dursleys, we make it to Hogwarts even faster, and we spend a lot less time on Quidditch than before. This is a trend that continues for the upcoming films. There's even less Quidditch in the fourth film, with the Quidditch World Cup being glossed over, while Quidditch is gone from the fifth film entirely. It's similar with the Dursleys, who continued to appear at the beginning of every book in the series, but here in the films, we don't see much of them after this point.
The first two movies were very faithful adaptations overall. While this film still covers most of the important events and plot beats of the book, it marks the point in the series where the films begin to sacrifice raw accuracy for the sake of style. I think there were both good and bad things about this.
On one hand, there is some great content from the books that didn't make it to the screen. Some of it was inevitable. The books were getting longer and longer, so of course more and more would have to be trimmed out to fit it into a film. But, from this point on, there's also less of an effort made to try and adapt things exactly as they happened in the book. Despite being adapted from a longer book than the first two, Prisoner of Azkaban is also a shorter movie than the first two.
There's also not as much clarity as before. The first two films are comprehensible enough for anyone who hasn't read the books to be able to understand what's going on. With this film, there's an assumption that you're familiar with the book, and/or have already seen the previous films.
There is a part of me that would have enjoyed seeing a more strict book-to-screen adaptation. The flipside is that some of the liberties taken with the source material allowed for more stylish and cinematic touches. All in all, I think this was a good call. The later films do feel more exciting. Indeed, this gets my pick for the best Potter so far.
Places I Wish I Could Visit
The wizarding world, which was once so foreign to Harry, feels much more familiar and well-established by now. Still, I like that we keep seeing new locations here and there. The important locale we're introduced to this time is Hogsmeade, a cozy little village near Hogwarts Castle. By contrast, we also get the eeriness of the Shrieking Shack, supposedly the most haunted building in Britain according to Hermione.
Speaking of cozy places, one thing that struck me is how warm and inviting the Hogwarts Express looks. Well, as long as there's no Dementors around. I've never ridden on a train before and I've always wanted to, but if I could pick any train in particular, it'd be an easy choice. It's little details like these that make their world so rich and vivid.
Snape, Snape, Severus Snape
Alan Rickman continues to sparkle in his role. I've seen him in other movies and he's a capable actor all around, but it seems as if he was destined for this role in particular.
It's more than just Alan Rickman's chops as an actor. I like the movies' take on Snape overall. My biggest problem with Snape in the books is that he was just too mean and abrasive and all-around unlikable. I get that he has a lot of fans, and I'm sure there's good reason for it, but I don't understand it myself. I personally never found him sympathetic. Book Snape is just a straight-up horrible person.
The movies, meanwhile, kept the essence of his character while vastly toning down his jerkish-ness. He's still prickly and unpleasant in the movies too, but there's much more of a balance. There are other things I think the books did better, but this is one aspect where I prefer the films.
A Colourful Cast
On the topic of characters, we get another new Defence Against the Dark Arts professor this year, introduced to us as a mysterious stranger sleeping aboard the Hogwarts Express. Despite his rugged and initially foreboding appearing, he's the first DADA professor who's actually a good person! In fact, he's one of the most likable and good-natured characters in the series. I mentioned before that Hagrid is my favourite character, but Lupin is up there for sure too.
We also meet Sirius, my other favourite character. He's another character I would have liked to have seen more of, but Gary Oldman still makes the most of him, displaying a wide range of anger, insanity, sorrow, and unexpected tenderness.
The returning actors are all great as well. With the child actors, you have the added bonus of watching them grow up, and this is the first film where it's really noticeable. Daniel Radcliffe especially. I liked him from the get-go, but this is where he really grows into the role and starts to shine as an actor. In fact, he gives probably the best performance of the film.
A detail I never noticed before, until my most recent rewatch of the HP movies for my reviews. In the first two films, Mrs Norris has distinct, unnatural red eyes. Here, however, they're a perfectly ordinary blue-grey colour. Interesting.
One thing I haven't talked about yet is John Williams. He composed the orchestral score for the first three films. If you're into orchestrated music, I totally recommend checking out his soundtracks here. They're quite delightful. They really capture the 'majestic, magical, mysterious vibe' of the Harry Potter world.
Always enjoyed the scene of Hermione punching Malfoy. :-)
Despite how the films gradually become darker, they also become more overtly comedic in a lot of places to balance it out. Like Aunt Marge inflating into a balloon. Or else the Fat Lady singing really loud to try and break a glass. And how could I neglect to mention the shrunken head on the Knight Bus? It's these sorts of goofy, random, yet priceless moments that aren't seen in the first two films.
All in all
I think this film, more than any other, is the 'make or break' point. If you weren't a fan of the first two films, Prisoner of Azkaban might be the one that makes you decide, "Hey, this series is actually pretty cool after all." Or else if you really enjoyed the first two, the change in style here (which continues for the rest of the films) might alienate you. If you enjoyed both the first two films and this film, you're all but guaranteed a fantastic ride. Or if you've made it this far and you're still not impressed, then you'll know that Harry Potter probably isn't for you.
Regardless, I give this film my whole-hearted thumbs up. See you again for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
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© 2018 Ian Rideout