“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” the third film in the enormously successful fantasy franchise, is the series’ only triumph. The majority of the HP movies – brought about by a total of four different directors, and resulting in zero aesthetic or thematic continuity – are vague insults to the spirit of the books. There is just one exception. Director Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”) had fun with the third, most eerie installment. “Azkaban” is a stylized and playful adaptation, in addition to being the perfect high film.
All the HP movies are “dark,” especially the last four; in fact, those are dark both metaphorically AND visually (like, you can barely see what’s happening). But No. 3 is not dark in the gritty action-flick sense of the word, with Harry, Ron and Hermione dashing through woods as Batman might soar over Gotham. No, “Azkaban” is spooky and quirky, more “Pan’s Labyrinth” than “Dark Knight,” more “Hobbit” (the book) than “Lord of the Rings.” The stakes aren’t as high. I couldn’t summarize the plot in my limited word count if I tried, but if you haven’t read the books I wouldn’t recommend viewing. You probably won’t understand. Unless you’re one of those laser-focused stoners who understands MORE plot minutiae after imbibing … in which case, have at it.
Frankly, I don’t think this book series was meant for film. The imagery J.K. Rowling crafted is too wild and personal, living so vividly in each reader’s imagination that attempts made in the flesh could only ever disappoint. Despite this, Cuarón took Rowling’s material and made it his own. “Azkaban” is the only film of seven with any discernible artistic flourish. The images are lush, strange and detailed: The giant orange pumpkins outside Hagrid’s hut; the cafe wizard stirring coffee with magic whilst reading Stephen Hawking; a Knight Bus squeezing between two London double-deckers; tiny footprints prancing upon the Marauder’s Map. You get a real scope of the Hogwarts campus, too, the wet greenery and surrounding lakes and mountains.
In later HP films, there’s far too much war-mongering for the narrative to convey a real sense of friendship (the most important theme in the books). But “Azkaban” illustrates the Golden Trio’s solidarity, like when Hermione punches Malfoy square in the face or when they all mourn Buckbeak’s execution. This is the last installment where the characters are still kids. They experience death for the first time in Book 4. But for now, they’re happy.