Out of all the Harry Potter films, Prisoner of Azkaban has been named—by us—most likely to cause a vicious slap-fight among hard-core fans. After two movies directed with bland loyalty by Christopher Columbus, the producers brought in Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron to shake things up. The result? Some fans are throwing parades in his honor, while others are busy looking for torches and pitchforks. Either way, it's safe to say that this film doesn't march to the same old beat.
Cuaron took a decidedly dark approach to the material, which makes sense, given that it's a reasonably eerie book. (Okay, fine—we gasped a lot.) The shadows look deeper here than they did in the previous movies, and Hogwarts has more of a haunted house vibe than it used to. The Dementors—Rowling's monsters that suck out your capacity to feel joy—lurk in the corners for almost the entire film. Then there's the Prisoner himself: Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), locked up in an honest-to-goodness magic nuthatch and presumably gunning for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) once he busts out. So yeah, we're sufficiently spooked.
All that Shrieking Shack-type scariness is in keeping with the book, which really delves into the notion of serious consequences for the first time. Nope, it's not just kids' play anymore. There are scary things out there. And we're not just talking monsters and evil wizards, but more run-of-the-mill stuff like being tossed in a lunatic asylum even though you did nothing wrong. Creepy much? Rowling showed a lot of maturity as a writer here, willing to talk about Really Important Issues instead of just kids with magic wands. And sure enough, Cuaron delivered, with a cool spooky atmosphere and the feeling that maybe, just maybe, Harry wasn't going to walk away from this one. Spoiler alert: he does.
Plot-wise, we're sticking pretty close to the book here (lest the filmmakers suffer the unholy wrath of J.K. Rowling's attorneys). Harry and his friends encounter the same challenges and obstacles: helping to save the condemned hippogriff Buckbeak, unraveling the mystery of Sirius Black, and summoning a petronus for the first time. It's good stuff and the movie knows it.
But alas, the movie had to make a decent number of cuts to fit in a reasonable running time—even more this time because the book was big enough to crush grossly large insects.
Let's take a look at what is, in our opinion, the most prominent cut: all the backstory detailing the escapes of Harry's father and his friends, one of whom happens to be Sirius Black. Harry's ready to kill Sirius in part because he believes that Sirius betrayed his father—that'll definitely do it—only to learn that Sirius was actually a loyal companion to Daddio. The movie doesn't get rid of all that, but with less time spent on it, it feels more like an "oh by the way" than a "you've gotta hear this right now." Similar snips and cuts are made everywhere, though few of them have the impact of this puppy.
Oh, one other kind of big deal thing; and this one, the filmmakers didn't have a say in. Richard Harris, who played Professor Dumbledore in the first two films, died, and he was replaced by Michael Gambon, who was a full ten years younger. Gambon was a lot livelier onscreen, and sometimes a little nuttier, too. If Harris was your beloved grandpa who knew all kinds of neat stuff, Gambon was your uncle, the combat veteran, who could seriously hurt a man and once had a really scary flashback in the middle of dinner.
While it doesn't technically alter the events of the book, it does make a subtle shift in the character himself. Suddenly, Dumbledore seems a little sneakier and a little less trustworthy than he did in Rowling's book. We're not entirely certain if Harry should do what he says, and actions like letting the Dementors come to school seem a little freakier than they do in the book. In fact, Gambon's casting anticipates events in future novels, when we learn that Dumbledore actually is a little shifty. But we're guessing that's just a coincidence.
So what do you think? How does Prisoner of Azkaban stack up? Shmoop amongst yourselves.