Credit: Warner Bros.
by Selina Lee Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — Alfonso Cuarón

June 4, 2024

By the time Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También) took over from Chris Columbus to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third in the seven-book, eight-film fantasy juggernaut and the entry that many consider the series’ best, he had the unenviable task of juggling convoluted narrative needs, sky-high fan expectations, and skeptical critics — and he hadn’t even read the source material! Columbus’ two adaptations were wide-eyed fairy tales that introduced the principal characters to the wonders of a magical world hidden beneath the humdrum contours of British suburbia. But many found these films faithful to a fault and criticized their color-by-numbers approach to major plot points. In the two years that have passed since Harry Potter first discovered flying cars, invisibility cloaks, and giant talking spiders, some of his childlike innocence has fallen away by the events of this third film. Part of this character development can be chalked up to puberty; in Azkaban, he and his best friends, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), are officially teenagers, and tensions run high as they deal with unpleasant and unfamiliar feelings, in between potions brewing and transfiguration practice.

But there’s also a growing unease that pervades not just their interpersonal dynamics or the hallways of their beloved Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but the entire magical world writ large. The film opens with Harry, ensconced with his dreadful relatives over the summer, losing his temper and storming off into the night. His outburst is very much that of a teenage boy — he inflates his insufferable aunt like a giant, tweedy balloon — but his barely suppressed rage is palpable. He’s no longer the tentative tween of the previous books, but a defiant, if underage, wizard, pissed off and unafraid of the consequences. Lacking the nominal safety of his magic-hating relations and the protective bubble of wizarding London, he’s more vulnerable than ever—- especially when a sinister black dog emerges from the darkness, an omen that pops up again and again throughout the film. Even more alarming is the threat of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a deranged convict whose seemingly impossible escape from Azkaban prison has the wizarding world on edge. Do his allegiances lie with his vanquished master, Voldemort, or his one-time best friend, Harry’s father, whom he allegedly betrayed? Why does he seem oddly chummy with the mysterious new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis)? And why has Ron’s surprisingly resourceful pet rodent, Scabbers, wriggled into the fray?

Unlike the first two adaptations, Cuarón here prioritizes atmospheric vibes over dogged veracity to the source material, injecting the series with moments of pronounced realism while hinting at the increasingly menacing forces and characters that come into play later. This balancing act is reflected in everything from the film’s poster, where the threesome doesn’t even wear school robes, to its color grading, which is awash in cool blue tones, driving gray rain, and long, creeping shadows that convey a sense of ever-looming danger. In addition, Cuarón significantly builds out Hogwarts itself, both within and beyond the castle walls, and this greater sense of scale is immensely rewarding from a viewer’s perspective. At the same time, it befits the characters’ ages and growing sense of rebellion. The newly added sundial, bridge, and pumpkin patch are all ideal places to have quiet conversations, eavesdrop, or even throw a punch; these larger grounds enable a sense of restlessness and movement that echo a major plot point involving time travel. Hogwarts’ many moving staircases are now supplemented with hidden passageways, and the presence of wraithlike Dementors, the Azkaban guards whose soul-sucking “kiss” is enough to scare most wizards down the straight-and-narrow, means this impenetrable sanctuary once again harbors both protective and malevolent forces. Some of this world-building comes at the expense of narrative legibility — who exactly are Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs, anyway? — but Cuarón wisely, mercifully caters to existing fans instead of spelling out subplots for standalone or drop-in viewers. The result is a pleasingly creepy work of fantasy that succeeds or artistic and aesthetic terms outside its function as a Harry Potter film, one which harnesses its director’s strengths and alchemizes its disparate ingredients into something truly magical.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon