Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) – Alfonso Cuaron

Despite the box office success of the previous two Harry Potter films, the franchise really comes into its own with a change of directors, the masteful Alfonso Cuaron settles into the chair taking over from Chris Columbus who moved into a producer’s role for this entry.

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint return for their now iconic roles, surrounded of course by a who’s who of British acting talent, whose ranks swell alongside Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane and Maggie Smith to include Michael Gambon (taking over the role of Dumbledore from the late Richard Harris), Emma Thompson, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis.

Deranged murderer Sirius Black (Oldman) has broken out of the wizard prison of Azkaban, eluding the terrifying Dementors and, the Ministry of Magic believes, has Harry Potter (Radcliffe) in his sights. They believe he is a target because of You-Know-Who’s return, and that Black works for him.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg for a story that takes our favourite Hogwarts students into their third year of magic and wizarding, and under Cuaron’s direction, the film is a layered joy that gets the best performances from the film’s leads to date, and adds in a level of darkness that was missing in the earlier entries, but really needed to be introduced for the benefit of future films.

While Columbus’ first two films are absolutely delightful, Cuaron infuses the series with a reality, and his cinematic direction is on wonderful display. There are changes in the geography of Hogwarts and uniforms in this entry, and we also get to see students in every day clothing, as they get to visit Hogsmeade for the first time.

Everything about this film (including the fantastic visual choices made by the filmmakers) feels like it opens the world up in a whole new way, promising us that the series is, like the actors in their roles, growing.

There’s a lot of play and fun in this film, which helps counter the darker themes and material that are being introduced in the series, and all of it works, from Hermione (Watson) throwing a punch, to seasonal encounters witht he whomping willow. Cuaron makes sure the camera is moving, and capturing beautiful images, honestly, each frame of this film feels like it could be framed and hung on a wall, this is the most gorgeous film in the series so far, and the production is simply stunning.

As enjoyable as the first two films in the franchise are, it feels like the series has really settled into its own with this entry, and feels like a much stronger film than the previous installments. They’re solid family films, but this one shows what the series is going to be, and it also has that great score by the masterful John Williams.

The series continues to grow the world and the characters next time with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

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