Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets introduced us to J.K. Rowling‘s Wizarding World in charming and delightful fashion, with both films finding favorable placement on The List and Chamber of Secrets being deemed as a gradual improvement over its predecessor. I’ll be honest though – something that surprised me was how much I enjoyed both of them after all these years. It had been a while since I last re-visited the Harry Potter franchise (shortly after the release of the final film) and I was happy to find they were even better than I remembered, capturing a sense of wonder through its characters, settings, and spectacle, all while building to something much more epic-scale and grandiose.
Something I remained confident about heading into this was that my favorite films in the series were the Half-Blood Prince and The Prisoner of Azkaban, respectively. I fondly recalled the third film as a better film in each and every way compared to Harry’s first two initial outings, remembering it as a mature progression of the series’ narrative. I believed it evolved the series from a hallmark young-fantasy to a benchmark in the fantasy genre altogether, maturing with its core-audience and becoming more dramatic and in-depth.
Many critics and fans feel the same way, singling the notable change in the film series’ tone and directing, and it’s often regarded as one of the best Harry Potter films. The box-office response had admittedly taken a small hit this time around, which could be due to its perceived change in tone or could be a followup of the sophomore slumps had when you compared Chamber of Secrets to the original film. Whereas Chamber of Secrets declined about one-hundred million from Sorcerer’s Stone, Prisoner of Azkaban made nearly one-hundred million less than Chamber of Secrets, and, when you consider inflation and the increase production budget, that gap only becomes more apparent. The third film was the lowest-grossing of the entire Harry Potter series, which, might lead you to believe the series was hemorrhaging, however, it remained a very profitable film, and as history will tell, it bounced back in a major way.
The film was directed by Alfonso Cuaron and was written by Steve Kloves after the novel by J.K. Rowling, and saw the return of the original cast, as well as the addition of Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon.
In the film, Harry Potter arrives at Hogwarts in unceremonious fashion. After an altercation with his family that sees him lose his temper and inflate his aunt like a hot air balloon, he is pardoned by the Minister of Magic, and regroups with his friends Ron and Hermione. A wizard named Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban, convicted as an avid supporter of the dark wizard Lord Voldemort, and is now on the loose. Not only that, but through a familial connection between Sirius and Harry’s mother and father, there is reason to believe he might, in-fact, intend on killing Harry should he be given the chance to. As a result, black-clothed reaper-like creatures called Dementors now haunt Hogwarts, meant as a means of security to keep Sirius away from the school.
The change is tone is evident, but it wasn’t as prevalent or, in-fact, as dramatic as I had recalled. This isn’t a criticism, in-fact, I would regard it as more complimentary, as the progression is as seamless and gradual as the maturation of Sorcerer’s Stone to Chamber of Secrets. One of the biggest changes is the directorial contribution of Alfonso Cuaron, whose directorial history includes films like Roma and Gravity. Frankly put, Alfonso is a very good director and is especially surprising to see attached to a franchise film. His contribution offers the series a newfound cinematic depth and sophistication, with visual arresting prowess beyond the mere spectacle that engages in more intimate ways than simply wizardry and the high-concept novelty of a film about wizardry. The cinematography and the color-scheme provides a bleak and dreary pallet, but it never feels overbearing or inconsistent with its predecessors, feeling natural.
The film sees Michael Gambon‘s portrayal of Dumbledore after the unfortunate death of actor Richard Harris. Although I don’t mean this as an insult to Harris, by any stretch, I believe Michael’s portrayal of the wizard is more appropriate to this film and the series hereafter. In Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, Richard Harris portrayed Dumbledore as a whimsical character. The soft-spoken cadence in his inflection and the wink-and-a-nod approach brought the Dumbledore a certain Santa Claus like magic about him. I believe this benefited Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, almost as if it portrayed Harry’s larger-than-life perception of him, but, hereafter, Dumbledore is established as more formidable and powerful.
The story is bolder and more complicated. Whereas the earlier films were, more-or-less, ways for Harry to fight weaker versions of the Dark Lord, building himself and the looming threat of Voldemort, this film isn’t as explosive or action-oriented. This is about the relationship between Sirius Black, and about Remus Lupin, the new teacher for Defense Against the Dark Arts. This is about, not Voldemort as a looming threat, but a reminiscence on all the destruction he committed the first time around. The film sees the Harry Potter character evolve beyond more than a template character for moviegoers to insert themselves into, and more like an actual fleshed out human with complex emotions like anger and hate toward those who killed his parents and cast him in the role as “the boy who lived”.
This is a film (this also applies to the novel itself) I believe transcends what Harry Potter had been up until that moment. Although its evolution may not be blaring or in-your-face, that isn’t to say a lot wasn’t accomplished in the film itself. The film breaks away from the established formula and does a lot of the heavy-lifting for the series hereafter, and while that does come with baggage, it doesn’t anchor the film. Prisoner of Azkaban doesn’t feel self-contained. Tom Riddled’s diary isn’t conquered and Professor Quarrel isn’t stopped, and, because of that, it does feel transitional. It feels like the middle-act to a larger series (which, it is), but it sets the stage in remarkable fashion, nevertheless. At times, perhaps, it can feel a little too convoluted, particularly when it comes to Peter Pettigrew, but it does remain faithful to the quirky charm the series is known for.
I had to rack my brain as far as this film’s placement on the list was concerned. I enjoy it a lot and I like a lot of the progressions it makes in the series, so much so that I’d call it a great series entry in Harry Potter (a series I, too, consider great), but I don’t know if I’d consider it as a great standalone film by itself. Nevertheless, I believe it is on the very cusps of that, and offers as significant an improvement on Chamber of Secrets that Secrets did on The Sorcerer’s Stone.