Early in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), after an unpleasant encounter with a hooded creature known as a dementor, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) looks through the window of the Hogwarts Express, his reflection projected against the rain-soaked night. The image wipes to the exterior of the familiar castle as a children’s chorus sings a rhythmic, medieval-sounding tune with words taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. We then enter the Great Hall, where a choir of students with frogs in hand concludes the song with the forceful and ominous phrase, “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” This is one of the film’s many small departures from author J.K. Rowling’s source material, which had been followed to a tee in the previous two films. Both playful and sinister, the song (titled “Double Trouble”) turns up in various capacities in the score and permeates the proceedings. But its first appearance in the scene described above boldly announces a new direction in the Harry Potter series. What once felt so clean and mechanical under the even hand of Chris Columbus suddenly bleeds with mystery and mood.
Director Alfonso Cuarón shakes up Columbus’ work with changes extending beyond small alterations or additions to Rowling’s text. Some of these changes were inevitable, such as the replacing the late Richard Harris with Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. But even with a new actor in the role, Cuarón essentially re-imagines the character as more jolly and quick-witted. Innumerable franchises have undergone reboots in the years since, so all these changes don’t seem as significant now as they did then. But for a series that is partially built on maintaining a strict level of sameness, Cuarón pushes the envelope in challenging ways, and the shift in tone and aesthetic deepens the film’s emotional underpinnings.
A good example of this is how Hogwarts is depicted. I mentioned already that the music has a distinctly medieval flavor, and this carries over to the entire castle. In the first two films, the castle is more gothic with its imposing stone structures and chilly, fire-lit hallways. Here, the spaces within the castle—and more generally among the students—is more intimate. The corridors are smaller, brighter, and less domineering. Rather than feeling like a cold, lifeless locale, Hogwarts has its own personality in Prisoner of Azkaban. This can partly be attributed to the newly designed school grounds, which have rolling hills and boulders, a courtyard with trees and bushes growing outside the windows, and a creaky corridor bridge that look out onto the damp grounds. Even the Whomping Willow seems to be happier in this Hogwarts, as it delights in swallowing birds that cheerfully fly about the school grounds before meeting their doom among the tree’s dancing branches. I could list many details that give the castle and school grounds a personality, but to put it more generally, by making Hogwarts feel like it is a part of some kind of larger environment, it takes on a greater life.
Cuarón’s eye for environments serves him well, from the snowy pathways of Hogsmeade village to the tall wooden towers of the Quidditch field where Harry flies through beating rain and lightning in pursuit of the golden snitch. While the changes to certain locales affect how they look, they more importantly alter how they feel. Moreover, the characters are now an integral part of the surroundings, often framed against and defined by them. Cuarón’s deft use of foreground and background, in particular, aid in creating fully dimensional, expressive images in which both location and characters are carefully observed with a subtle balance of distance and intimacy.
Cuarón’s aesthetic seems perfectly suited to the narrative, which focuses on Harry’s near-despondent state. Unlike most other stories in Rowling’s series, the plot of Azkaban is less driving and more focused on brooding dread. This provides Cuarón good opportunity to amplify Harry’s loneliness and uncertainty. He is no longer a tragic victim of growing up without parents, but is instead actively angry that he cannot have them in his life. The plot deals directly with the looming threat of a man named Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who is thought to have betrayed Harry’s parents and directly contributed to their murder by Lord Voldemort. Black has escaped from Azkaban prison and now presumably aims to hunt down and kill Harry at Hogwarts. In light of the rising threat, dementors—prison-keepers of Azkaban—are stationed outside the castle to intercept Black and bring him back to the wizard prison. These creatures levitate motionlessly, their shredded hoods caressed by the wind. They have the ability to drain the life out of anything around them. Despite not playing an active role for much of the film, their presence is chilling. Cuarón portrays them as deliberate, methodical, and lifelike but without fully seeming alive. As such, they become manifestations of Harry’s fears as well as his doubts and inadequacies.
Though the film’s focus rests with Harry’s growing state of melancholy, Prisoner of Azkaban aptly counters the despair with a sense of youth and joy. Harry has a blissful personal moment early on where he rides a winged beast above the castle and the lake. Flying high, he is afforded a brief reprieve from the problems that await him below. Gliding along the lake, Harry outstretches his arms and enjoys a momentary ecstasy that further punctuates his sadness. In another instance, Harry fumbles beneath his bed covers and performs spells while pretending to be asleep each time his uncle enters the room. Allusions to masturbation aside, this shows Harry using his wizard fantasy to retreat from the outside world. It is a simple, but delicate moment. The frequent hints of blossoming sexuality elsewhere are a nice touch as well, in particular because they are not made overt. There is an intimacy to the way the trio of young actors (Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson) interacts. They have a comfortable rapport with each other and appear to naturally move and act in ways they don’t even quite fully understand.
As Prisoner of Azkaban moves toward its conclusion, it presents oddities ranging from shape-shifting animals to souls being sucked out of bodies. It’s all pointedly absurd, but since an emotional anchor has already been so effectively established, Cuarón maintains course. And surprisingly, while the climactic time travel sequence is depicted with much humor, it also coldly signifies Harry’s inability to change time and rid himself of a memory he does not even have. Despite his ability to manipulate the means by which he experiences time, he cannot alter the memories and feelings left behind by its passage.
Ultimately, Harry’s journey stops short of delving into total gloom. The longing images and emotional undercurrents never coalesce, as we might wish. They instead allude to a darker road to come; indeed, Prisoner of Azkaban ends on a jubilant note with an image suggesting that even Harry’s rare excursions of fun are soon to exit his life. That the film offers little payoff for its brewing feelings of sadness and pain does not reflect negatively on it. While the movie is satisfying on its own, it serves a critical function in the broader scheme of things. Though the arc of the plot is barely progressed, there is an emotional core here that resonates back to the earlier entries and ahead to the future installments. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that the film finds subtlety and rich aesthetic expressions not just within the established world of the series, but also within the aesthetic and narrative frameworks of popular cinema.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art.