Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban saw several major changes for the Harry Potter film series as a whole. It’s the first movie to not be directed by Chris Columbus, which of course means a new direction at least from a filming standpoint. It’s also the point where Harry, Ron and Hermoine really started to mature as characters. Well … Harry and Hermoine more so than Ron, but you get the idea. While there were some creepy aspects to The Chamber of Secrets, some of the imagery in The Prisoner of Azkaban is almost straight out of a horror movie, yet it’s never too intense for its intended younger audience. It’s also the last movie in the series with John Williams composing the soundtrack.
Columbus left the director’s chair when he realized how little he had seen his own kids while filming the first two movies. He stayed on the project as a producer, while Alfonso Cuaron took over as the director. His previous directing credits include A Little Princess, the 1998 adaptation of Great Expectations, and a number of short films. He tends to be known as a visual storyteller, and it really shows in the way the Prisoner of Azkaban uses its environments, lighting and camera placements to tell the story. With this movie, the series series switched from its yearly schedule to an 18 month filming cycle, which gave the movies and directors more time for pre-production and visual effects.
Before selecting Cuaron as the director, Guillermo Del Toro was approached, but he envisioned a Dickensian approach to the film, and considered the first two movies too “bright and happy and full of light”. M. Night Shyamalan was also considered, but he turned it down as he was working on his own film, The Village. At one point, Sir Kenneth Branagh was also considered as the director. He played Gilderoy Lockhart in Chamber of Secrets, and happens to be an accomplished director himself with movies like Thor, the live-action Cinderella remake, and a number of Shakespeare adaptations under his belt. Well, Thor and Cinderella hadn’t come out yet, but you get the idea.
The movie also saw three important additions to the cast. First, Michael Gambon takes over the role of Dumbledore after the death of Richard Harris. This is actually the second role that Gambon took over from Harris, as he also took over the role of Maigret on TV after Harris played the character for 4 years. He once described the role as pretty much “I just stick on a beard and play me … I’m not really a character actor at all.” Despite that, he brings the same sense of dignity to the role as Harris did, while also bringing more energy to the role.
Gary Oldman joins the cast as Serius Black. In case you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, I won’t spoil his role, but he’s great. He shifts from a seemingly raving lunatic to a calm, fatherly figure rather convincingly. And finally, David Thewlis is fantastic as Remus Lupin, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. He’s convincing as a worthy role model for Harry, and really helps the title character learn of his true potential as a wizard. He also shows a great balance between being level-headed for the most part, but clearly plagued with his own fears and regrets.
Anyway, Cuaron was reluctant to film the movie at first, as he hadn’t read any of the books, but Del Toro convinced him to read the books. He quickly became a fan, so he happily accepted the role. JK Rowling was thrilled that he came on board, being a fan of his previous work. One of the first things he did was get the lead trio to write an autobiographical essay about their characters, written in first person. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) wrote an essay that was exactly two pages. Emma Watson (Hermoine) wrote a monster 10 page essay. Rupert Grint didn’t write one at all. When asked about it, he said “I’m Ron; Ron wouldn’t do it.” Cuaron’s response, “Okay, so you understand your character.”
Cuaron wanted to establish a more mature tone for the movie, from every standpoint. He wanted to make Hogwarts look a bit more contemporary and naturalistic. After studying English schools, he noted, “Each teenager’s individuality was reflected in the way they wore their uniform. So I asked all the kids in the film to wear their uniforms as they would if their parents weren’t around.” Columbus really liked that subtle change, calling it a “reflection of the character development within the books themselves.” In some scenes, the students wore street clothes instead of their uniforms.
In terms of environmental changes and set design, they expanded the exterior of Hogwarts by about 40%, adding a clock tower and a courtyard. Some of the other new sets included Hogsmead and The Three Broomsticks. They also used more real world locations in the environment around Hogwarts, like Loch Shiel, which is the fourth largest lake in Scotland.
Rowling allowed minor changes from the book, given the film remained faithful to the book’s spirit. Some of these changes included a sundial on the Hogwarts grounds, but she rejected a graveyard, as it would play an important part in the yet to be released sixth book. Most of the changes ended up being cuts from the story, as the book was noticeably longer than the first two. Several backstories were chopped up, a lot of the additional lore is missing, and pieces of Serius Black’s supposed betrayal are shifted to other parts of the story for the sake of condensing things.
As for the Knight Bus sequence, that alone took several weeks to film in various locations in London, just to give the impression that the bus was really moving at 100 miles an hour. According to stunt coordinator Greg Powell, “We drove the bus at around 30 miles per hour, and the other cars moved at only 8. It took weeks of planning with stunt drivers, and even the people you see on the street are stunt men and women, who were trained to walk incredibly slow just to make the bus look faster.” I’m impressed to learn he put that much effort into a fairly short sequence.
The Prisoner of Azkaban released in June of 2004, and was the first film in the series to be released in both conventional screens and IMAX. It actually held the record for biggest opening in the UK up until Spectre released in 2015. It ended up earning $796 million worldwide on a $130 million budget, making it the second highest grossing movie of 2004 (Behind Shrek 2). However, it was actually the highest earning international release, earning $546 million outside of North America, compared to Shrek 2’s $487 million. Yet as much as it was a clear success, it actually earned the least out of all the Harry Potter movies. Well … Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald earned less, but let’s not talk about that yet.
Even though it earned the least out of the Harry Potter movies, it is often regarded by critics and fans alike as the greatest one. It earned a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, and an 82% score on Metacritic. Critics in general praised the movie’s more mature tone, and its greater focus on characters. Roger Ebert is an odd-man out in the sense that while he praised the movie, he said “the film is not quite as good as the first two.” Salon on the other hand called it “one of the greatest fantasy films of all-time.”
The film also received two Academy Award nominations, for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score. It earned a number of noteworthy awards elsewhere, including Outstanding Performance by an Animated Character at the Visual Effects Society for Buckbeak. The Hollywood Film Awards awarded the movie Production Design of the Year. John Williams earned the BMI Film Music Award for his soundtrack. He also won the Public Choice Award at the World Soundtrack Awards, along with two other nominations. Williams did great work with the soundtrack in the first two movies, but in my opinion, this movie easily has the best overall soundtrack of the series.
I really like this movie. Although watching the first two movies at my friend’s house got me curious about the rest of the movies, when I watched Prisoner of Azkaban a couple of days later, I was hooked. The added character depth and drama enhances the movie’s feel overall, and really invests you in what’s going on. The smarter comedy also helps. The lead actors have really come into their own by this point, convincingly portraying a group of friends in their early teens. I would also argue that this movie has the best soundtrack in the franchise, and that’s saying a lot. You’ve got a very inspirational theme when Harry learns a very advanced form of magic that many adults can’t even figure out. You’ve also got a really neat beat when, to avoid spoilers, Harry and Hermoine bend the rules of reality.
But what really makes this movie work so well is the technical side of things. Cuaron brilliantly uses establishing shots to help tell the story, whether it’s shots of the whomping willow in different seasons, or even Hedwig flying by the camera as the hillside shifts from green to covered in snow. The camera focus on the whomping willow could also be interpreted as foreshadowing, as it does get featured in the movie’s climax. Camera angles and lighting are used to highlight important things in the background, while obscuring what the audience isn’t supposed to know yet. Instead of characters telling us they feel weird when the dementors arrive, frost builds up on windows and in liquid, which didn’t happen in the books up to that point.
Although this isn’t quite my favourite of the Harry Potter movies, it is a close second. It takes everything that was good about the first two and kicks it up a notch. It greatly deepens character drama while still telling a compelling mystery. Despite the mildly scary imagery, it doesn’t feel as creepy as the second movie, instead focusing on the dramatic side of what’s happening. It makes for a movie that’s still easy to show kids, and it’s entertaining, yet the storytelling is dramatic and mature. It might not quite be my favourite, but I could still easily make an argument for Prisoner of Azkaban being the best movie in the series.
Next up is the most controversial movie in the series, The Goblet of Fire. This might change, but as of right now I also plan on watching the Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them movies right after I finish the Harry Potter movies. After that, I’m not sure what I’ll be focusing on with my movie blog posts.