The Harry Potter series has left an indelible mark on my life. A gilded, glowing fantasy world that swept me away when I picked up the first book in third grade, and has lingered with me ever since. This declaration of love is highly common, as the series itself quickly became a pop culture landmark and a household name, and remains one to this day.
Readers were captivated by J.K. Rowling’s beautifully illustrative writing, and dually enraptured when director Chris Columbus adapted the first Harry Potter book into film in 2001. It’s the books that were the highlight of my childhood, but as I grow older, I find my appreciation of the films almost on par with my appreciation of the books. But it’s only one of the 8 films in particular that has enchanted me throughout both my childhood and current adolescence, and that I consider to be my favorite film of all time: Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban.
Family Ties In Voldemort’s Absence
The third installment in the Harry Potter series sets itself apart with one major detail: it’s the only installment where the series’s overarching main antagonist, Voldemort, doesn’t appear. The core conflict, instead, is based around Sirius Black. An ‘antagonist’ shrouded in mythology revealed to be Harry’s kin by the end of the story turns out to be a compassionate man whose violence was spurred on by revenge.
It’s the only installment, apart from the final one, that doesn’t end on a heavily dubious note. It’s a full circle, and could even work loosely as a standalone film (in terms of conclusiveness). This time, we’re not dealing with some snake-like, slightly supernatural being. The ‘villain’ is an ordinary man who is directly connected to Harry, and by the end of the story, you end up deeply trusting him.
The familial bond between Harry and Sirius is translated to the general intimate atmosphere of the film adaptation itself, an atmosphere unique to the third film only. Director Alfonso Cuarón took some liberties when adapting the book to screen (i.e. Harry doing magic over the summer and not getting expelled, along with many more discrepancies), leaving some fans up in arms. However, as he trimmed away some of the more obscure aspects of the wizarding world, he magnified everything about it that has made the story feel so accessible to audiences across the globe.
Camerawork and Costuming: Unsung Heroes
Cinematography is the key to immersing audiences into a film, and cinematographer Michael Seresin’s work in this film is outstanding. It seems as if the camera is never still throughout the entirety of the film, whether slowly closing in on its subject, or darting quickly back and forth. It highlights the humor, heartbreak, and joy within each respective scene. It’s the supporting actor, as well as the star.
Where most of the Harry Potter films choose to use long shots to highlight the expansiveness of the magical world, the camera in this one doesn’t shy away from close-ups. These close-up shots intensify the emotion in each scene, and create some of the most memorable moments of the entire film series (the infamous Aunt Marge scene, Lupin’s transformation, the Boggart scene, etc.). This fantasy world feels so much more real, casual, and even plausible, thanks to the camerawork in this film.
Costume design is also a major, and highly underrated factor, contributing to the uniquely casual atmosphere of this film. For the first time, our core three protagonists are clad in clothes normal teens in the 2000s would wear, and not in starchy school uniforms 24/7 (a switch in costume conceptualized by costume designer Jany Temime). The outfits are so casual, yet memorable in their own right, and wonderfully reflect the personalities of the golden trio. It’s revolutionary in its own subtle little way.
This casual nature extends to their school uniforms too. We have unbuttoned collars, rumpled robes, loose ties, and genuine variation in clothing from every extra to every key character in the film. Something as seemingly insignificant as costume design plays a huge role in breathing life and personality into the characters we see.
Motifs serve as a grounding factor among the highly turbulent emotions of the film, and the Womping Willow is a major one. There are 3-4 shots highlighting the vicious tree, each one signalling the coming of a new season, and a new shift in the trajectory of the story. There’s a shot of the willow gently shaking off dead leaves in the fall, another of it shaking the snow off itself so violently that it splatters the camera, and a tracking shot of a blue bird flitting through the tree’s branches before getting flicked away by one of its tendrils.
This motif also doubles as foreshadowing, considering how big of a role the willow plays later into the film. Harry and Hermione end up battling their way through the tree’s frenzied branches to reach the secret passage beneath the trunk, which leads them to Sirius Black.
Possibly the most important motif, however, is the wooden bridge. It was a completely new addition for the series, absent from the books and from the preceding two films, and ended up carrying importance throughout all of the Harry Potter films after this third installment.
In this film, it serves as a safe and emotional confessional ground between Harry and Lupin, as well as a landmark in Harry and Hermione’s time-turner adventure. In the films following this one, there have been endless scenes featuring it (most notably, its significance in the Battle of Hogwarts). The charmingly crooked bridge remained a staple throughout all 8 Harry Potter films, and all thanks to the introduction of it in this third installment.
The Ultimate Coming-Of-Age Film
Almost everything in this film, from color grading to thematic elements, is significantly darker, and this is used to segue into Harry’s first year as a teenager. Harry has started to come into his own now, as we see in the beginning of the film when he storms down the gloomy street of Privet Drive after yelling at and accidentally blowing up his aunt (as any normal teen does). It’s classic teenage rebellion, but wizard-style. And still, within the storm of emotions clouding Harry’s thirteenth year, there is joy.
Giggling with his friends as the snow floats down around them, eating candy late at night with his dorm-mates in their room, sneaking out of the school to join his friends in Hogsmeade. There’s a classic, childish joy that everyone has known at some point in their life. This joy is integral in making the wizarding world feel real, and cutting away any cold boundaries between the audience and the film. Because no matter how far-fetched the story gets, at the end of the day – they’re just thirteen. They think and act and talk like any normal thirteen year old would.
This is what has continually enthralled me in my many years of watching and loving this film, from elementary school to my current high school years. I see so much of myself in Harry, and I’m sure most young audiences do as well. In his jubilant scream when riding Buckbeak to the tender look in his eyes when speaking with his godfather. This film is the most reflective of him as a character, and does him the most justice out of all the other Harry Potter films (and not just because his hair looks the best in this one).
The full spectrum of emotion is captured here in the most beautiful way, in a fantasy world that should feel outlandish and distant, but never does. I will be forever grateful for the existence of this film and how deftly it toes the line between escapist fantasy and comforting reality. It enthralls and consoles. Excites me and puts me at ease. Its magic will never grow old, and I’m inexpressibly excited for all coming generations to experience this film and fall in love with it the same way I have.