For many people, this is the peak of the Harry Potter series thanks to the efforts of well-known Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron. The films finally have a style, a discernible tone, and the maturity of the content is finally matched by the filmmaking. I agree on all counts, but part of me feels that the series has continuously improved and while this may have been the major turning point in the series, it is far from the best. The third book is widely considered one of the big audience favorites and I can't help but feel that this attributes to some of the bias toward this film. I feel that the fact that Cuaron is also the biggest name director in the series also influences the way the people view the film.
But in my opinion, Prisoner of Azkaban feels a bit rushed in its later half, with its biggest narrative confrontation feeling a bit rushed and awkward. SPOILER ALERT: I am talking about the moment where Sirius and Lupin confront Pettigrew. I never quite liked the way the scene was executed. The opening sequence on the bus, while interesting also felt a bit strange. It is likely the only sequence in all of the films that I feel does not belong to the world that the filmmakers created. I give Cuaron credit for taking risks and pushing the series in a new direction, but the Jamaican accent on the bus just did not work me. Oh and that song "Something Wicked this Way Comes" (which is the tagline for the film poster) should never have made it into the film either. It is one of the more cringe worthy moments in the film and almost reintroduces the child-like character of the first two films. It would probably have been more understandable in the last film (though likely not less cringe-inducing), but after setting up a mature tone for the first half-hour, this only brings it back down to kids play.
But that is simply nitpicking (and I will likely do it throughout the parts of this retrospective). Columbus' films lacked intimacy and subjectivity and were presented like children's movies. This is the first Potter film that reaches out to all audiences by becoming part of Hollywood's latest fad: "Making films darker." The poster's palette and its tagline "Something Wicked this Way Comes" are pretty straightforward in expressing the new direction of the series. But in this film the "going darker" actually made sense, considering the story. Soul sucking dementors and a murderer escaping from prison were the main narratives of the film. There is also a "death" of an innocent for the first time in the series. Harry FINALLY shows vulnerability for the first time in the series and his character does more than go through the motions. The climax of the story is finally the product of an emotional journey rather than a plot necessity. Obviously, a lot credit is due to J.K. Rowling's impressive book, but Cuaron gives this world a new color and new outlook and finally places the characters at the forefront of the story.
Speaking of which, he wastes no time cutting to the chase. The mandated sequence with the Dursleys is still in place and hilariously executed. But once Harry runs away, Cuaron does not shy away from letting us know that some mysterious creature is after him. He meets up with Ron and Hermoine a little later, and the inciting incident in the story (Sirius' escape from Azkaban) takes place shortly thereafter. It happens in the first 20 minutes of the film (whereas it took about 1 hour in each of the previous films). From there, the story is allowed to unravel at a balanced tempo, with major plot points countered by intimate character moments. Take the ride atop Buckbeak. It may be a major plot point in the story, but Cuaron takes the time to connect Harry and the audience with this new character so that its subsequent role in the story actually matters to us. It is one of the most memorable scenes from the entire film.
The acting continued to be a strong point in this series, with Rupert Grint and Emma Watson starting to develop some romantic chemistry and foreshadowing what is to come in later films. Gary Oldman is a well-come addition as Sirius in what is likely one of the my favorite performances of the series. Michael Gambon steps in as effectively as Dumbledore in a limited role. David Thewlis is great as Lupin. But Radcliffe still fails to impress. He shows some interesting moments near the end of the film, but for me this film showcases likely his worst acting moment in the entire series. If you don't know what I'm talking about, it's that moment where he has found out that Sirius killed his parents and he runs off and cries about it in the snow. Then he shouts and yells in a manner that brings to mind that dreadful moment in Star Wars Episode II in which Hayden Christiensen does the same thing after killing the sand people. Yes, I am comparing a Daniel Radcliffe acting moment to A Hayden Christiensen moment. Fortunately, Radcliffe never has another moment like this for the rest of the series and perpetually improved as an actor, while Christiensen continued to add to this legacy in the remaining Star Wars film.
One final note about John Williams and his score. This is the last film he did in the series and it is by far his best work. He had some memorable moments in the first two films, but they pretty much tread along the same path. I felt like the score for the second film was pretty much a copy and paste version from the first film. Not the case in this film. He captures Cuaron's darker vision with his lush music. Where as he indulged in sacarine moments with the first two scores, Williams' music is far more tame in this iteration and as a result, more effective. The aforementioned scene above Buckbeak does not work as beautifully if not for William's lush music.