By Jake Triola
As we approach both the release of the second of five—yes, five—Fantastic Beasts films, as well as the release of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which has dazzled the festival circuit, taking the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, it seems like the right moment to revisit Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), the third film in the Harry Potter franchise based on its third book, which follows Harry and friends as they uncover secrets in regard to Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), escaped convict and alleged accomplice in the murder of Lily and James Potter. More than half a decade after the completion of the original-series Potter movies, Cuarón’s interpretation stands out boldly, evolving Chris Columbus’ childlike wonderment to a darker and more mischievous tone that would, from that point forth, give the teen-fantasy saga the feel for which it became so beloved in the first place.
Right off the bat, we are introduced to Angsty Harry, whose anger is justified as soon as we meet his Uncle Vernon’s sister, Marge (Pam Ferris), who has come to visit. While gorging on whatever dinner the Dursleys might’ve had Harry prepare, she continually berates the boy, and, being Angsty Harry, the teenager that he is, he fights back, causing her to literally balloon and float all the way to Sheffield, where Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), as we’ll find out later, must rescue her. But not to worry for Angsty Harry, because, as Fudge tells him after a simultaneously literal and figurative trip aboard Stan Shunpike’s Knight Bus, “the Ministry doesn’t send people to Azkaban for blowing up their aunts.” Whew.
Though he gets through the film well enough that we love him more than ever by the end, there’s a strange quality about Angsty Harry: passivity. As Roger Ebert once pointed out, despite being the protagonist in a series donning his name, Harry generally opts to let others call the shots once he’s finished with his aunt. Of course, though said behavior might deviate slightly from that of the book, it works extremely well in conjunction with that of the movie versions of his friends, Ron and Hermione, who urge him along from scene to scene, oftentimes bickering with each other. Emma Watson, especially, begins to bring Hermione to life in this one, adding a confidence and wit to the brains by which the character had already been defined.
In defense of Harry, he does have to deal with things like Dementors, which suck any and all happiness out of victims, as well as the stress of being hunted by the very person who, supposedly, killed his parents.
Though I’d always appreciated David Thewlis’ portrayal of Remus Lupin, now that I’ve seen him in Mike Leigh’s Naked, I feel I can fully cherish his abilities to be subtle, but not necessarily restrained, and when he needs to lash out and go full-werewolf, do so. As for performances, I also remember the feeling of skepticism which my eight-year-old self felt when getting to know Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore who, though vastly different from the late Richard Harris’, is just as affecting and would prove to be a promising fit for the following films in the series, which would require a little less rumination and a little more action.
Prisoner of Azkaban always feels like a Halloween movie. It features pumpkins, candy, witches (obviously), and a few stunts that come with the help of Harry’s invisibility cloak and the wildly-intriguing if not dangerously-omnipotent Marauder’s Map. Alongside these treats are a few tricks (some involving time travel), thanks to Cuarón’s great flexibility as a director constantly trying new things.