Leading up to the 15th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on November 16, we’re looking back on the series and rewatching one movie each week to see how they hold up.

There’s something about Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that’s always bugged me. The third book was one of my favorites in J.K. Rowling’s series, next to The Goblet of Fire and The Half-Blood Prince, but the movie? Not so much. Looking back on all eight movies, the third film always stuck out to me as one that didn’t fit with the rest. Watching it again after revisiting The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, I realized why the third installment feels like the outlier of the franchise, and not in a good way.

It’s the only Harry Potter movie that doesn’t feel embedded in the Harry Potter universe. There’s a few reasons for this. One is that it looks and feels the most modern. It’s the first film where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are wearing normal Muggle clothes, and there’s something super weird about it. After spending two movies getting to know these kids in their classic school robes, it’s disorienting to see them looking like us.

Part of what made the magical elements of the first two movies feel so thrilling was how antiquated Rowling’s wizarding world was. From Diagon Alley to Hogwarts, the magical scenery felt like a trip to an older time full cobblestone streets where people still wrote letters with quill and ink instead of computers. If Harry Potter was a Brooklyn kid in Nikes who found a magical wand in Central Park, getting the audience to believe in magic would be a lot harder. But the foreign, distant nature of the first two movies (which is revisited more in the rest of the series), and the idea of escaping the modern world to a secret, old-fashioned one was what made these films work. And yet in Prisoner of Azkaban we’re reminded that these kids also shop at Old Navy. I remember watching it as a 13-year-old and thinking how silly Herimone looked casting spells in a pink hoodie and jeans. (Update: She still looks silly.) It cracked the wall that kept Rowling’s world separate from our own.

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

It’s not just the wardrobes that are different. The Prisoner of Azkaban barely spends any time at Hogwarts. The majority of the action takes place outside of the walls of the school, at places like the Shrieking Shack, outside the Whomping Willow, and near Hagrid’s hut. While each of those have some fun action sequences, they don’t have the same lively energy of the school-based scenes. The plot structure of the movie is also unlike the rest of the films with the addition of the time-travel storyline (which is also in the book). I’m always skeptical when an author relies on time-travel to make a story more interesting or to save a dead character’s life. When tacked on to an already imaginative story, it feels like a lazy narrative crutch.

The Prisoner of Azkaban also fails to capture the palpable emotions of the book. When the big twist reveals that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) is Harry’s godfather, the devastation and anger Harry feels is lost in melodrama. In the movie, Harry storms out into the snow and cries on a rock, then jumps up and suddenly shouts, promising to kill Sirius. The emotional shifts in the film are jarring and flighty, and aren’t served well by the acting. Radcliffe and Watson coasted on their adorableness in the first two movies, but here they try too hard in dramatic moments. (Grint is okay, mostly because Ron only has to act scared and clumsy.)

The best thing about the third film is its director, Alfonso Cuarón, who brought a rich visual style to the Harry Potter franchise. He’s known for his swirling camera movements, something that made him an ideal choice to adapt Rowling’s third novel. His style turns the most chilling moments into a sensory experience. The way he shoots the Dementor’s Kiss scenes in the Hogwarts Express, above the Quidditch field, and beside the lake in the finale evoke the stunning terror of the scenes from the book. His swirling camera also creates the feeling that danger lurks everywhere in the movie. And luckily the CGI is a huge improvement from the last two films – except for the awful imagining of Lupin’s (David Thewlis) werewolf transformation; even Twilight did a better job at that.

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

While the next films in the series took on a darker, gloomier look, The Prisoner of Azkaban is one of the few that had a radiant visual glow. The scenes in the forest and with Harry and Buckbeak flying across the water are some of the most gorgeous, bathed in bright light and surrounded by deep greens. It’s a shame Cuarón didn’t return to direct more sequels.

The Prisoner of Azkaban introduced some essential elements for the rest of the series, with everyone’s favorite wronged hero Sirius Black, the Marauder’s Map, and the introduction of the Patronus Charm, and the Peter Pettigrew reveal. But those moments play more like a checking off of plot points than compelling parts of a narrative. Visually it looks great, but the franchise wouldn’t suffer without it.

Additional Thoughts:

  • If anything, this movie made me realize one incredible thing: J.K. Rowling invented the GIF! The Daily Prophet was way ahead of the internet.
  • As much as I miss Richard Harris in this film, Michael Gambon does a great job of jumping in and playing Dumbledore you already love by the film’s end.
  • Demonic-voiced Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney is truly a gift from the casting gods.
  • Another reason this film’s casting was on point: Pam Ferris, a.k.a. Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, plays Aunt Marge.
  • Ever notice that Lupin is casually napping on the train while Harry is about to have is soul sucked out? Do they not have Five Hour Energy in the wizarding world?

Harry Potter Ranking Worst to Best (so far):

3. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

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