‘Harry Potter’ is a story that will live through at least a few generations, and November 14th, 2021 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the release of the first film. I’ve grappled with my relationship with this story. In 2001, This world felt like it was just opening up, and now, on 4K Ultra HD with High Dynamic Range, I ‘m continuing to revisit this fantasy to see whether it lives beyond the real-world problems surrounding it and explore how we might, as consumers, change the way we think about sharing stories that matter to us.
Alfonso Cuaron directs ‘Azkaban’ into a break-neck pace. Scenes are blocked so action can happen distinct from dialogue. One scene covers all of Harry’s conflict with his Aunt Marge, Harry meets Cornelius Fudge and is set to go to school in one scene, Mr. Weasley talks to Harry by moving around one location into different compositions in one take, and many scenes have an almost stage-play quality with the set shifting as actors brush across them to deliver information and hit beats on queue.
This causes a shift in pacing from the beat-by-beat nature of the first two ‘Potter’ films to information being delivered in “bulk” visually and as a result, Harry fights his textbook just as long as Hermione and Ron argue over the loss of Ron’s rat, and Harry rising on a broom to face dementors or riding Buckbeak carry the same or more emotional weight than the reveal that Sirius Black is his Godfather (which is delivered in rushed lines from Maggie Smith among side characters at the camera views through a cloak). At times the tone within a scene shifts dramatically rather than staging separate scenes to allow visual language to change emotions (for example, the slap-stick comedy of the Knight Bus drops with a musical sting into the reveal of Sirius Black and some exposition to twist the mood).
On a more positive note, the first time, frames hold the older actors with the younger regularly, and with perspective from other sets (Harry’s room at the Dursley’s, The Gryffindor common room, Hogwarts train compartments) this would allow someone watching a marathon to literally track the growth of the actors.
Many details are retained, and practical effects are utilized to great effect to help the world feel alive and lived in. From the housekeeper in the Leaky Cauldron to Hagrid’s tie for Buckbeak’s trial, there’s always something to watch or catch the eye. Tones the this set design are muted-gray, giving an overcast tone that makes sense for the school being surrounded by soul-sucking monsters, but the 4K image makes colors glow more vividly without shaking off the story-fitting overtones.
The layout of Hogwarts and visuals for how student’s and characters dress are changed dramatically, but this world feels earthy and practical. Many scenes are shot with wider lenses and so it’s look is still unique to this movie, but it should be said that the world built with Cuaron at the helm sticks, and we see it laid out the same for all future installments (Lupin and Harry even overlook Dumbledore’s future gravesite at one point). There is even a lot of work to lay groundwork for the rest of Harry’s story (Trelawney’s prophesying as a base for part 5, Harry and Sirius’ relationship, stronger hints of Hermione and Ron’s relationship).
The cast includes newcomers like Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney, David Thewlis as Professor Lupin, and Timothy Spall as Pettigrew, as well as Ekow Quartey credited as ‘Boy 1,’ the most hilariously ominous youth who very well could and should have delivered all exposition within the movie. Some actors feel distinctly different just due to aging (Draco Malfoy/Neville Longbottom) and others are recast like the Fat Lady, and, most notably, Dumbledore. Michael Gambon plays the oddities and charm of the character despite him not meeting with Harry until the movies’ end. This is a gentle introduction to help with a transition from the loss of Richard Harris (Rest in peace).
Some odd results of the style of direction include Arthur Weasley seeming more aggressive (everyone passes information in rushed, aggressive tones), Remus Lupin shifting his performance to appear more menacing as if to tease he may be a villain before the reveal in the start of act 3, and then there’s Hermione. Emma Watson seems to have been directed to show concern or anger with almost no variation until the end of the movie. Exceptions include laughing at Draco for being hit with snowballs and running and she seems happy when she punches him Draco, both of which seem to relish in venting anger. With only a brief mention of how Hermione has been getting to classes “all year,” she never breaches beyond two dimensions of a character. Rupert Grint maintains consistency while Daniel Radcliffe is asked to carry some emotional weight while Harry learns about his family and past, runs from home, and generally has more agency that in ‘Stone’ or ‘Chamber.’ His performance recounting the “memory” of his parents and his chemistry with David Thewlis are particularly strong.
This features John Williams’ last score for “Harry Potter” (though his music is used later) and yet his soundtrack doesn’t function the way it does in more “classically” directed movies like ‘Star Wars.’ ‘Sorcerer’s Stone,’ or ‘Chamber of Secrets.’ The moments he shines are with Buckbeak and the larger emotional moments and vary in tone and purpose to serve different scenes. His work reflects a deviation into the artistry of film as a medium, culminating in a finale theme that is, in my opinion, largely underrated. Usually, John Williams tells you what to feel. Here, he rarely needs to, and so he tends to flex stylistically to serve the visuals.
I would argue that this movie can stand on its own if the viewer suspends disbelief and explains everything needed as “magic,” but for a discerning viewer this is the first installment to expect you to have some familiarity with the franchise, if only enough to keep the story from stopping. Harry owning an owl seems well accepted as normal and the Hogwarts Express is… there, and Harry uses a cloak that makes him invisible without re-establishment.
Even without being a fan of the books, there are a few distinct mistakes that may or may not distract a viewer: It is not explained how Sirius is “the first one that,” broke out of Azkaban, although could potentially piece together that the dementors guard Azkaban and Sirius slipped past them at Hogwarts. It is never clarified he’s overlooked as a dog. The “Marauders” are never explained- despite hints due to Lupin, Sirius, and Pettigrew being close to Harry’s parents and Harry knowing how the Marauder’s map works. It is never revealed Harry’s father was also an Animagus. (An unfortunate detail given this is the shape of Harry’s Patronus and that charm held so much emotional weight in this movie.) Harry loses his broom… many wouldn’t care but since he doesn’t get a new one how does he continue to play? Or does he not for the rest of the school year? Harry uses an invisibility cloak one time to go to Honeyduke’s but at night, despite being forbidden to wander, he doesn’t use it when searching for Peter Pettigrew and is found by Snape, and it isn’t used again when they visit Hagrid and he notes they shouldn’t be out, “this time of night.”
Despite still running two-and-a-half hours, you’d have to be paying close attention to keep up with the information thrown at the viewer in the third act, mainly prior to Harry and Hermione’s time travel. Harry develops a close relationship with Lupin quickly, then even more rapidly with Sirius, even entertaining changing where he lives after only an hour or so together. Neither feel the same as the relationships built with Hagrid or Dumbledore, though something about knowing Sirius has watched Harry since the start of the movie, and Gary Oldman’s performance, gives significant emotional weight.
I can’t help but feel the movies post-Chris Columbus exist in a different world and I’d be curious to see both the first installments of the David Yates team and Columbus’ 3-7.
Part of the joy of watching these individually is the way they stand on their own as fantasy mysteries until part 5, but watching these together, there’s a joy in how the story builds on a core. It doesn’t NEED to reestablish the Hogwarts express, Harry’s cloak, or the roles of certain characters, but to break the feeling of existing in the same world while relying on that world as a back-drop for this story will always stand out to me. It’s charming, gorgeous, detailed, and overall, ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ manages to hold up the spirit of the books story, and the central thread of “Where does Harry come from?” And “Who is he going to be in this world?”
“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is a movie directed at families and fantasy enthusiasts. It distinctly explores the negative impact if disinformation and the inherent reward of doing what is right in the face of a system that damns the wrong person(s). As David Thewlis’ Lupin says to Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, ““It made a great deal of difference. You helped uncover the truth. You saved an innocent man from a terrible fate.” Whatever J.K. Rowling believes, she has continued to provide a story to help children realize they will have to make decisions for themselves, regardless of how they are raised by prior generations.
If readers of this article can explore lending copies, buying second-hand (assuming not from an illegal vendor), and sharing with those who may be interested (streaming parties, etc.), The movie is a favorite that stands on its own for many viewers, and is a valuable story, and the world is at its most tangible and colorful now on a 4K hard disc.
(This series is intended to review the Harry Potter movies as pieces resulting from collaborations between artists and commercial stakeholders. If you’re still grappling with your relationship to this fandom, I welcome you to explore many supportive sources of information online (Particularly Lindsay Ellis’ commentary on “death of the author” and Ms. Rowling’s platform: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NViZYL-U8s0) )