Retro Reviews are frequent looks back at films I've already seen to conclude whether or not they still hold up, taking into consideration both the time period and circumstances during which they were made and how they work in the modern day to offer a more in-depth exploration of the film itself than those found in my standard first-time reviews.
After taking 2003 off, the Harry Potter series returned in 2004 with the much-anticipated adaptation of Prisoner of Azkaban, the third entry in J.K. Rowling's series. After two films slavishly devoted to their source material that were both critically and financially successful under the directorship of Chris Columbus, Prisoner saw Alfonso Cuarón taking the reins, bringing with him a whole new sensibility to the franchise that took risks in pushing the series forward into a more appropriately mature realm.
As I described in my reviews of the first two films, Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets were essentially used to throw everything at the wall in order to see what stuck, and after the two-year break, Prisoner arrived having learned from their efforts, sacrificing a need to adapt everything it possibly could from the books to deliver a much leaner, far more focused, and less excessive final product as a result, which was an inevitability the series was going to have to embrace sooner or later as the books themselves only continued to grow larger and larger. For fans who loved the first two films for capturing as much as they could of Rowling's work, Prisoner was understandably a shock to the system, but it worked: At the time, the film was regarded - and still often is - as the best entry in the franchise, and rightly so.
When I first saw the film, I have to admit that my experience was affected by my love of the book, as everything that was cut or changed was noticed, and that remained the case for every single film in the series. It was hard to separate my view of what any of the films should be with what they truly were going into them initially, but while my appreciation levels for them all rose with subsequent viewings, I still know - as I've mentioned before - quite a few people who still can't stand Prisoner (or the films that followed) simply because it didn't line up beat for beat with the 100% accurate film adaptation in their head.
Perhaps, of all films in the franchise, to damn Prisoner for what it's not is the most egregious act one could make, as everything it is truly stacks up to create a film that has the most personality out of any of the series. Even just comparing it to the first two films, it's a huge leap in quality on all fronts, and though Cuarón didn't return to the series again after directing it, the series owes as much to him as it does Columbus; while the latter helped build the sandbox for the series, the former proved that being allowed to actually play in it could pay off in dividends.
Rowling's work in Prisoner of Azkaban marked a pretty big shift for the tone of the series, befitting her bespectacled hero's own maturity. It started really moving Harry and his world into darker territory and began peeling away at the cheerful facade to reveal the heavier themes that would come to the surface in later books. Again, as I mentioned in the first two reviews, what makes a great adaptation isn't always translating every single moment but replicating the essence and spirit of the material, and what Cuarón and screenwriter Steve Kloves - who wrote every film in the series save Order of the Phoenix - achieve here is exactly that, effortlessly capturing what Rowling did and displaying it for all to see.
While Columbus did a solid job helping bring the Wizarding World to life, it's hard to say his efforts weren't workmanlike in retrospect, particularly when compared to Cuarón, who helps Prisoner stand out from its predecessors by imbuing it with a distinct aesthetic. On a purely visual level, Cuarón is a huge step up from Columbus, coating everything with an ambiance that goes beyond merely slapping a few pumpkins up on screen and saying, "It's Halloween now." When seasons change, so, too, does everything about the film; we're not merely seeing ice and snow on camera, for instance, but everything simply feels cold.
Cuarón's work radiates off the screen, and the fact that it feels as though the series itself is growing up under his guidance goes hand in hand with the themes inherent in growing up that the characters themselves are actually experiencing. As an audience, this is our third time dipping into this world, and Cuarón mixes everything up, even going so far as to completely change the layout of Hogwarts itself; gone are the samey, freshly-cut green lawns, replaced by rolling hills and winding stone pathways, over-sized pumpkins and fog. What he pulls off, miraculously, is an effort that never disrespects what came before but breathes new life into something we've already seen to make it even more fascinating to behold, gifting everything from the Leaky Cauldron to Hogwarts a lived-in feeling that makes it all even more tangible.
Prisoner also has the honor of introducing tons of new locations, important concepts, and characters into the series, none of which feel incongruous with the fundamental style laid down by the first two films - even if Cuarón gets to add his own twists to it - and became just as permanently iconic within the franchise as our first looks at Hogwarts and Diagon Alley became. The snow-topped look of Hogsmeade introduced here went on to become hugely popular as part of the Wizarding World at Universal Studios parks, and the likes of Honeydukes, the Three Broomsticks, and the Shrieking Shack all have their own distinct looks that just leave you wishing for more time to appreciate the details packed into every corner, the production design as stellar as always, if not more so. Dementors, Patronuses, the Knight Bus, and the Marauder's Map are all introduced here, too, and again, it's no surprise that the way they're all visually brought to life have become so instantly recognizable the world over.
In its effort to streamline the book, Prisoner - and the series as a whole - does away with many characters introduced in the first two films, including Nearly Headless Nick, Oliver Wood, Colin Creevey, and Lee Jordan, and while that is one of the sticking points some die-hards have with the franchise from this point forward, they're not really missed, particularly in this film, which introduces a whole new roster of more important series stalwarts in Emma Thompson's Professor Trelawney, Timothy Spall's Peter Pettigrew, David Thewlis' Remus Lupin, and, of course, Gary Oldman's Sirius Black. They're all incredible additions to the series, and considering that my personal favorite characters from the books were Lupin and Sirius, I'll forever be thankful that Thewlis and Oldman knocked the roles out of the park.
Like the first two films, much of the returning adult cast still has little to do in comparison to the young leads, or even the new cast, for that matter. Familiar faces like Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, and Alan Rickman remain stellar as always, but it's the absence of Richard Harris - who passed away shortly before Chamber of Secrets was released - that is most noteworthy. Taking his place in the role of Dumbledore is Michael Gambon, who brings a zest-filled take on the character that's quite different from the one Harris provided, and while it divided some people, particularly later on in the series when some of his actions and line deliveries somewhat betray the cool-headed character that both Harris played him as and the books portray, it mostly works. He's primarily finding his footing with the character here, understandably so, but his performance is kinetic and engaging, which helps ease the transition from Harris to him without any real awkwardness.
Another improvement from the first two films is the continued growth of the younger cast as actors. They're more comfortable here than they ever were in the first two films, and scenes where they're simply hanging out - like a sequence where the boys goof around eating candy in their dormitory - seem less scripted than genuine. Like the characters they're all playing, they're growing up, too, and we get to see them be appropriately goofy and awkward while also witnessing their ever-growing dramatic skills. Again, simply by virtue of having the most to do, Radcliffe's weaknesses stick out the most, mainly during a scene where he's tasked with crying while being angry, sad, and murderous after learning the "truth" about Sirius, but even still, the growth between Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner alone is noticeable, and it's to his credit that he manages to plow right through the rocky spots and make it easy to forgive them.
One thing disappointing about Prisoner's predecessors, chiefly with Sorcerer's Stone, was how poorly much of the CGI has aged over the last decade and a half. Prisoner thankfully fares a lot better in that department, and while certain things like Buckbeak or a shot of Hermione being whipped around by a branch of the Whomping Willow have begun to show their age, they don't stick out like a cringeworthy sore thumb like, for instance, the first film's troll. Quidditch even looks better than ever this time around, and while I think much of that has to do with the fact the sequence in this film takes place entirely during a rainstorm - which helps to cover up the seams a bit - it's far more pleasant to watch nonetheless.
Despite being a genuinely darker tale, Cuarón deftly lightens up the proceedings now and again with a lot of humor. Of the first three films, it's by far the funniest, loaded with little sight gags and scenes like Aunt Marge's flight, Harry's wrangling of the Monster Book of Monsters, or Lupin's boggart lesson. It's never forced nor awkward, and goes a long way in giving the film that unique personality I mentioned earlier, complementing the darker aspects of the film rather than undermining it while giving the film a well-rounded appeal, which is something that's easy to overlook but more than deserves to be acknowledged.
Lastly, I have to bring up John Williams' work here once again. (You didn't think I was going to forget, did you?) This was the maestro's last film in the series, and while that was, and still is, a painful thought, he exited the franchise on an incredible high, delivering my favorite of his three scores. Like Cuarón, Williams seems to have been set free here to do something unique, and he gifts the film with some amazing pieces like the soaring Buckbeak's Flight, the infectiously ominous Double Trouble, and one of my favorite pieces from the entire series, the thoughtful A Window to the Past. They're all unlike any of his work in the first two films, and little flourishes like the subtle ticking playing through the Time-Turner sequence all add up masterfully, ensuring that his entire score is just as important a contribution to the film's unique identity as everything else Cuarón and the rest of the team brought to the table.
Coming off the first two films which tried their best to encapsulate as much of the books as they could into their runtime, it's easy to see why Prisoner of Azkaban may have disappointed some fans, and I can't fault them entirely, because I would've been thrilled to see many scenes and characters jump from page to screen from a book I adore that's part of a series I love. That said, there's a reason the film is so widely praised, and that's because it strikes that perfect middle ground between book readers and non-book readers. Things it omits are never really missed while watching it, and little questions it raises but doesn't go out of its way to clarify that book readers can answer without missing a beat - like who Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs are that created the Marauder's Map - can be sorted out with context clues by casual viewers, rewarding them via further viewings rather than requiring them to read the books for answers, as is the case with a few of the other films.
The more years that have gone by, the more I have come to further appreciate the film. While it's still not my personal favorite, it is one of the most well-rounded entries in the entire franchise, and what Cuarón did in helping bring the series to new creative heights can't be understated. It's paced extremely well without sacrificing the joy of spending time in this magical world, it's a visual feast, and it's incredibly respectful to Rowling's work and its own predecessors even if it changes things up now and again. It's a step forward in every single way for the series, and a necessary breath of life and dose of maturity that makes it an ongoing pleasure to revisit.
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