In a recent review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban on the Nerdwriter1 Youtube channel – of which I apologise in advance for anything repeated in this review – he said that this movie could have been just as important for children’s filmic education as the books were for my generation’s reading education. I could certainly say that was the case for me; seeing the trailer for Prisoner of Askaban on the cinema screen at 10 years old, and specifically the shots of the train carriage freezing around Ron Weasley’s hand, was the first time that I was consciously aware that I was seeing something cinematically powerful. Not the first time I was emotionally affected at a cinema, but it was such a different feeling compared to the first two films that I became more conscious of a film as a created piece. By the end of the I would have know what a director’s job was.
This director’s name is Alfonso Cuaron. He had done fantasy before, namely with the fantastic A Little Princess, but the film he had done before this one was Y Tu Mama Tambien, an explicit road-trip sex drama. It was a big risk on both Warner Bros and JK Rowling to put this man in charge of not just a prominent children’s fantasy series, but to be the bridge between the child friendly previous two films and the increasingly darker entries that would follow. The result? The best film of the Harry Potter series, and the one that paid off that promise I saw in the trailer.
Maybe the most crucial thing about this movie is what it lacks; Lord Voldemort. More specifically, a definitive unstoppable evil. The great bad turns out to be a snivelling coward. Even the Dementors are only really doing their jobs. Unlike even the good films in the series going forward, until revelations in the last movie, it is not a simple dichotomy. Despite even the motifs and themes of this one film, ones of light and darkness, it doesn’t segregate magic into light/good and dark/evil. Other films would be mature in content, but this one is in the details.
And the details of this film continue to give even after many years and re-watch. Here is one example I noticed today: In the Great Hall scene, when Dumbledore – now played by Michael Gambon – says “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, when someone remembers to turn on the light”, he lights and relights the candle. A small and obvious symbol, the sign of the showman this version of Dumbledore is. But when Professor Lupin is teaching Harry the Patronus charm, the scenes accentuates how the candles unlit when the Boggart takes over Harry, and remain lit when Harry succeeds the second time. Literally when he finds the happiness, even in the darkest of times, to cast the Patronus.
This is one example of many why this is the best directed film of the entire series. This is not only what I imagined Terry Gilliam would have done if he had been given the series, it is the world I saw in my head when I read the books (the third book happens to also be my favourite). It’s things like isolating Harry in the frame to show his loneliness, like going transitioning through mirrors, windows and reflections in the water to show self-reflection, like there being lots of talk about Harry’s eyes and scenes have either an Iris in or an Iris Out. All this shows a master craftsman and great director, but things like a kettle floating in the background of a long take when it doesn’t have to be there (and not focused on), and wizard’s reading A Brief History of Time; this is the world I would actually like to live in.
Placed in this world are the inclusion of new characters played be some of my favourite actors in the world (which might have something to do with Prisoner of Askaban). I will always miss Richard Harris, but I really do like the substantial energy that Michael Gambon brings to the role of Dumbledore. Emma Thompson as the divination teacher is surreal and delightful, and Timothy Spall plays rat-faced Pettigrew with slimey glee. The two most prominent additions, though, turn in the best performances. David Thewlis shines as Professor Lupin, the warm mentor to Harry, who also plays the role as though he was a relapsing junkie (which makes sense, given the nature of his character). Then there’s Gary Oldman, who is in the contention of greatest actors to ever live, playing Sirius Black in exactly the chameleon manner you expect him to do, selling every side of that character as every revelation is made about him.
The returning cast too have some stand out moments. Specifically the main cast, who here get to flex their acting muscles as maturing performers, and very rarely do Radcliffe, Grint, Watson and Felton not stand with their adult counterparts. Robbie Coltrane is still lovable as Hagrid, and his scene when he is genuinely proud of his first day as teacher still makes me smile. But one who really gets to shine in here is the now passed Alan Rickman, who plays that line between the cruel harsh investigator and a man who will protect the children without is his biggest and best role until The Half Blood Prince (and the events of those later two novels add even more subtext to the scene, though the Shrieking Shack scene is still one of the greatest scenes in the entire saga without it)
Any genuine complaints? Well most of the time the loony comedy is wonderful, but occasionally it can distract. The feral book scene in particular harkens too much back to the tone and episodic nature of the previous films, being a good demonstration of their problems. There’s maybe one or two monotone child actors more than normal, and as I get older it’s distracting that the character is called Professor Lupin and we’re supposed to be surprised of what he turns into (though that’s a book fault more than anything). But those are all small complaints, and one’s that are but second lifts out of this incredible world.
Harry Potter would continue to have great adventures, but for me no movie ever surpassed Harry Potter and Prisoner of Askaban, and I think that far beyond any nostalgia or love of the book (in fact, this might be among the least faithful of the books, which I think its one of the reason’s its allowed to work better as a film). It is the episodic first stories with a darker, more magical, more narratively rich tone. It’s the wizarding world I most want to call Hogwarts.
There would still be good times ahead, but the descent into darkness was about to go further. Without this film, what was to come would have been a much bumpier ride. On to the next one…
Some people have issues with the time travel elements of this story, but in a world of magical coincidence the logic of the travel travel is the least of my concerns. I do have a small issue with the fact the movies never address the time turner again – as many have pointed out – but that isn’t a fault of this film as it stands.
Though why do they use a different ADR line for Hermoine speaking in the time travel scene compared to the first scene? Have they actually gone fourth dimensionally in time? Are there alternate universes in this universe where they fail? I don’t actually give a shit about any of these things, but isn’t nitpicking time travel grand? No? OK, moving on…