One of the reasons why I believe so many people like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) is because it marks a departure from the original two. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) set a fun and whimsical tone for the film versions of J. K. Rowling’s hugely successful novel series. By the time we get to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it was time for a darker turn. There are several ways this can be noticed. In simpler terms, our three main characters, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), are not asked to wear their official Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry robes the entire time. Their costumes were part of the whimsy. The fact that you now have them dressing like anyone else while facing possible life and death scenarios subtly increases the stakes. More overtly, the film’s lighting and scenes are more dimly lit. Finally, the plot does not directly relate to the impending return of “He Who Must Not Be Named,” Lord Voldemort. Either way, I think it was a good move on the part of the people behind these films’ production to make these changes. There are seven books and eight movies. If you do the same thing repeatedly, it is going to get a bit stale.
The darker tone in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is noticeable at the start when our title character departs abruptly from his summer home with the Dursleys. This time, it is the result of Harry accidentally using magic to inflate his verbally abusive Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris), much to the horror of Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) and Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths). Storming off, trunk in hand, Harry heads out into the night. Stopping for a moment to rest, he notices a growling dog across the street, which startles him. It causes him to fall over and stick his wand out, which magically summons the Knight Bus, a sort of public transportation system for witches and wizards. It takes him to Diagon Alley, where he takes a room at the Leaky Cauldron. Not long after settling into his quarters, he is visited by the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), who pardons Harry for using magic in the presence of non-magic folk. Harry is also soon reunited with Hermione and Ron, who are there to prepare for the upcoming school year. In turn, Ron’s father Arthur (Mark Williams) informs Harry of a disturbing bit of news: the infamous criminal Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from the wizard prison at Azkaban. This is important for Harry because he had been put in jail for helping to lead Lord Voldemort to murder Harry’s parents. This news hangs over Harry as he and his friends ride the Hogwart’s Express to school. They are joined in their riding compartment by the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis). Though he appears to be sleeping, he suddenly awakens when another change to this year’s school staff enters the room: a ghostly creature known as a dementor. With Sirius Black on the loose, and Harry believed to be Sirius’ target, the dementors are on hand to act as “guards.” Yet, they feed on happy feelings, and they attack Harry, prompting Remus to drive them off. Danger averted, they make it to school and settle in for the year’s academics and other activities with the dementors hovering outside. Because Harry and company are now in their third year, their age is supposed to grant them the ability to visit the nearby magical village of Hogsmeade, provided they have their permission slips signed by their parents or guardians. Because Harry’s guardians are the Dursleys, the proper form was never signed. Not to be deterred, he receives a special magical map from Ron’s twin brothers that contains a layout of Hogwart’s, where everyone in it at any given time is displayed, and, more importantly, secret entrances and exits out of the school. Grabbing his trusty cloak of invisibility, he heads out and meets up with Hermione and Ron in Hogsmeade anyway. This clandestine trip results in two items of information. First is the location of the Shrieking Shack, a supposedly haunted building. The second is that Sirius Black was a close friend of his parents, the result of Harry eavesdropping with his cloak on a meeting between Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and Minister Fudge. Enraged, Harry vows that he will kill Sirius Black if he gets the chance. His opportunity will not be long in coming, for there is evidence throughout the year that he is stalking the school. After witnessing one of school gamekeeper Rubeus Hagrid’s (Robbie Coltrane) creatures, a hippogriff named Buckbeak, being executed for supposedly assaulting Harry’s nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), Ron is bitten by his pet rat Scabbers. Harry and Hermione join Ron in their chase, leading them to the Shrieking Shack. Once inside, it comes to light that Scabbers is actually a shapeshifting human named Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall). Further, it had been Peter who betrayed Harry’s parents, and that Sirius had been falsely accused. They agree to turn Peter over to the proper authorities, but then they walk outside to a full moon. When Remus sees it, who had also arrived at the Shrieking Shack, he turns into a werewolf and Peter escapes. Everyone runs away, and Harry and Sirius are attacked by dementors, only to be saved by a mysterious figure that Harry takes for his dad. As it turns out, this is Harry using a spell that he had learned under Remus’ direction. If you are confused, this is possible because Hermione had been given a device known as a “time turner,” which allows her to travel in time and take more classes. While they are able to save Harry and Sirius’ life, they are unable to clear Sirius’ name. Still, they are also able to save Buckbeak, which they give to Sirius in order to escape. As usually happens, these events happen towards the end of the year, which also basically means the end of the movie.
Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban, like all these movies, is quite long. As such, I tried to reign in my description of the plot. There are many little moments in between the ones I mentioned that add a bigger picture to what I have told you. And because all these movies deal with magic, I am not going to repeat any of my Catholic thoughts on that subject. Finally, I described some of the differences in this one to its predecessor at the outset. Instead, what I am going to focus on is something that has always puzzled me about this one specifically, and that is Sirius Black. He is a good character. That is not the issue. What I find strange is the fact that he is Harry’s Godfather. There is nothing about this story, or any of the others, that any character has any kind of belief in God. There have been many who have made Harry out to be a messianic figure. I suppose that could be true, and yet that is a far too common story telling device, and I am sure you can point to similar characters without me needing to list any examples. Getting back to Sirius, since he has the title of Godfather, does that mean that Harry was baptized at some point? Is this something that witches and wizards do in order to blend in with non-magical people? If you are familiar with these stories, can you imagine Sirius Black showing up at a local parish for Harry’s baptism? I will admit this is a minor point, and my Faith means that I likely take it more seriously than others. After all, it is only a title. However, I do not understand why Rowling had to use that word. There are plenty of other ways of describing the surrogate parent Sirius becomes for Harry like, well, surrogate.
As just mentioned, this is a small annoyance that in no way takes away from my enjoyment of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It is an important one for the series because it sets the tone for the rest of the installments to come after it. It is also a solid story on its own, that can be watched without needing to see the other movies.