Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the most bizarre and surreal entry in the series. Waking nightmares and sequences of terror and panic tear away at the mental and emotional stability of the young wizards. There’s a consistent amount of rain in the opening section and even once that lets up, the feeling of unease lingers throughout the film.

More than anything else, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a mood piece, more concerned with atmosphere and tone than with plot and characters. While it makes for a visually compelling film, one can’t help but wonder why the series got so dark and serious all of a sudden. The awe and wonder of the world is replaced with fear and terror. It’s as if the series is trying to grow up too fast.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is certainly familiar with dealing with challenges beyond his years—albeit alongside steadfast friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) —as he returns for another year at Hogwarts, school for witches and wizards. However, the latest threat takes the form of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), an escaped prisoner who many believe seeks Harry Potter’s death.

The setup gives little leeway for any mystery in the story. The threat is already known, the only question is when and where he will strike. Outside of that, there is very little plot progression, simply a series of scenes strung together. While this could provide this film with some interesting character development, this is easily the most static and ill-defined portrayal of the characters in a film so far.

The problem is that director Alfonso Curaon is far more interested in crafting sequences so mysterious, atmospheric and visually captivating that he spends far too much time worrying about the minutia of each sequence. There is an amount of detail and a number of visual nods that make a lot of these sequences far more exquisite than the rest of the series, but at the cost of the narrative.

And even three films in, it still feels like this series is trying to introduce the audience to the world. The film spends so much time on giving almost every scene a sense of alluding and referencing to some other magical tidbit, constantly giving the audience feeling that his is a world filled with wonders and mysteries, the problem is that this ends up wasting a lot of the screen time and doesn’t serve the plot or characters.

When the plot finally kicks in at the last act, it’s almost as if the film knows it needs some action and story and decides to draw out the last act to a ridiculous length. Suddenly, the character moments arrive, the story begins to take shape and elements that seemed pointless before gain a new light. And yet, the film had a good hour and a half to begin shaping all these things instead of simply dumping them on the audience in the last act.

Even worse than that is the narrative device the film uses to resolve many of the obstacles and challenges the trio has in achieving their goals. Yes, it’s from the books, but it’s part of why this book is arguably the weakest in the series. It’s a contrived, annoying tool that gives the writer a pass from actually coming up with creative ways for their heroes to solve their obstacles.

The trouble doesn’t end there. For some reason, the film decides to insert a hefty amount of comedy into an otherwise dark, and troubled film. It’s oddly out of place, if only because the juxtaposition between horror and comedy is ridiculous. It’s a poorly timed series of slapstick gags that don’t feel like they are completely appropriate for this world, more because of the bad comedic timing than anything else.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban still manages to surpass the first two films in quality. It’s perhaps the worst approach to the series, but what it excels at makes for far better moments than anything in the previous two films. While far too dark, too middling and too goofy for its own good, the constant sense of anything being around the corner and some visually astounding sequences make this feel like the first time the films have reached a moment of movie magic, even if the moment is fleeting.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing