If you have read any reviews for the Harry Potter films online, you probably know that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is widely considered to be the best of the films. The praise for this movie off the charts. It has 91% on Rotten Tomatoes (a score beaten only by The Deathly Hallows Pt.2, at 94%), Roger Ebert gave it 3.5/4 starts, the film has high reviews on basically every movie rating platform out there, MetaCritic, IMDb, ext. If you google the movie, the top voted tags, are “magical”, “must watch”, “clever”, and “intense”; one of my favorite YouTuber’s, the Nerd Writer even made a video about why he believes The Prisoner of Azkaban to be the best movie.
I’m coming at this piece with a lot of opposition, so let me explain a few things. First of all, I am writing this as a fan of the books first, who is also a pretty big fan of the movies. Anytime I need a distraction or white noise, Harry Potter is my go-to. I’ve seen all of the Harry Potter movies, as many times as a Netflix addict has seen all the episodes of The Office. I do like all of the movies. I also like all of the books, though I have a much harder time ranking them. Technically speaking, The Prisoner of Azkaban is a very well-made movie, if I were rating the movies on that principal alone, I think I would likely put it at the top of my list. But I’m not. I also don’t know that I think The Prisoner of Azkaban is actually “the worst movie” in the series. I just don’t think it’s the best. I actually think it should be pretty low in the list. Perhaps not #8, but certainly no higher than #5; if you’re looking for a numeric breakdown.
So, what follows is, simply put, a breakdown of a few of my biggest issues with the film. These issues don’t really ruin the movie for me, I still get excited when it’s time for movie three, in my never-ending binge-watching sessions. But I think that has more to do with what the movie does for the series as a whole; re-casting some essential characters, and largely changing the tone of the movie to make them dramatically more interesting and fun to watch, than it has to do with the movie itself.
Fred & George
Fred & George are largely absent from the Prisoner of Azkaban. This isn’t saying a lot, because Fred & George are characters who, much like Tonks, or Ginny, or Lupin; are hugely important in the books, but had their roles severely butchered on their way to the big screen. It’s a sad fact of the movie franchise in general, but it doesn’t say anything about The Prisoner of Azkaban in particular. That being said, we have, essentially, two notable scenes with Fred & George in this movie; the first is Fred & George giving Harry the Marauder’s Map, pure plot, nothing really to reflect on there, and the second, I’ll get to in a moment. Before that however, I think it would be beneficial to quickly breakdown the character traits that drive the book versions of Fred & George.
When we first meet Fred & George in The Sorcer’s Stone, they are introduced as comic relief. That’s not meant to degrade them, they help turn what could have been a nightmarish scene (as anyone who has ever had trouble finding a bus) at Platform Nine and Three Quarters, into a happy and quirky second introduction into the wizarding world for Harry. But later in this very book we first get a real glimpse at the true nature of Fred & George.
Christmas Day, the four Weasley brothers at Hogwarts, along with Harry, receive some lovely hand-made sweaters from Molly Weasley. Ron and Percy both react to the gift the way that most would, either begrudgingly putting it on and hiding in other’s shadows, or in the case of Percy refusing to put it on entirely. But Fred & George have the complete opposite reaction. They show up in the Gryffindor common room proudly sporting their new sweaters, and making sure that their brothers are doing the same. In the case of Percy, literally forcing him into the sweater. This is a striking scene, and admittedly an unexpected one. Molly is nowhere to be found, there’s no chance that she could be offended by her sons’ refusal to wear the sweaters she worked so hard on. But that never matters to Fred & George. They’re proud to be Weasley’s, are happy to show it, and incapable of understanding why their brothers wouldn’t feel the same way.
The brothers continue to define themselves as perhaps the most loving members of the Weasley family throughout the books. Maybe the most interesting thing about the Weasley twins is that we never really witness them complaining about the financial status of the family. At least for the boys in the family, this is really saying something. Ron can be found feeling sorry for his lack of money off and on throughout the series, most notably in The Goblet of Fire. Percy disowns the family for two whole books, and it’s quite clear that this has as much to do with his disdain for the family’s lifestyle, as it has to do with his dedication to his job at the Ministry of Magic. But Fred & George never seem to have this problem. They have the perfect mix of pride, intelligence, bravado, and love that force them to realize how lucky they are to be in such a great family. In short, they grew up in a loving family, well taken care of; but appreciate it like people who didn’t.
So, when we first meet Fred & George in The Prisoner of Azkaban, I was shocked at what I saw. Harry arrives at The Leaky Cauldron, quickly followed by Hermione and the entire Weasley family. Ron, wastes no time in showing Harry a newspaper clipping from the family’s vacation to Egypt, which they took after winning price money from The Daily Prophet. Fred & George then enter the scene, immediately rip the newspaper clipping from Ron’s hands, and proceed to berate him for showing anyone the clipping in the first place. I have no doubt in saying that book Fred & George would have been the first ones to show off the newspaper clipping, and would have never considered for a moment being embarrassed by their summer with the family in Egypt. Cuarón has Fred & George behaving as many fifteen-year-old boys probably would. This wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that it totally contradicts the characters that exist in the book world.
At the end of The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry, Ron and Hermione discover the truth about Sirius. But before this can happen Ron is bitten, and has his leg broken by Sirius, in dog form; and is then dragged all the way through the secret passage under the Whomping Willow and through the proceeding tunnel, into the Shrieking Shack. Even after he gets away from Sirius, Ron is forced to walk around on a broken leg, as the trio escapes from Professor Lupin, now transformed into a werewolf, and attacking any living thing in sight. It’s after all of this, that we catch up with Ron again, enjoying some well-deserved peace and quiet in the hospital wing. He’s resting as peacefully as you can with a broken leg, when Dumbledore makes his way into the room, and immediately breaks into monologue; recapping the previous scenes events, and telling Harry and Hermione to go back in time to save Sirius and Buckbeak. At some point in this monologue, Dumbledore makes his way over to Ron and does a little more than pat Ron on his broken leg. It’s quite clear in the movie that he’s actually causing Ron a good deal of pain.
This is another huge violation of the character traits established in the books. You certainly could make the case that Dumbledore is more flippant with the safety of his students than he should be. We get out first example of this, in the first book, when he allows Harry to chase the Sorcer’s Stone and face Voldemort on his own at eleven-years-old. But the idea of Dumbledore physically causing anyone pain, is a foreign concept to anyone who’s read the books. The only example I can think of Dumbledore physically harming anyone in the books, is when he hexes an Auror in the Order of the Phoenix, so that he can avoid being taken to Azkaban. Even when confronted with the certainty of his own death in The Half Blood Prince, Dumbledore has a calm and collected conversation with the Death Eaters closing in on him, as he awaits Snape to finish the job.
What’s most annoying about this little gaff is the fact that it seems to happen mostly for comic relief. This is probably why this moment in the film has become one of the most criticized by book lovers; but that doesn’t make the criticism any less valid.
Perhaps, the beat established piece of the Wizarding World is the Ministry of Magic. This is probably the single most notable reason why the Harry Potter universe feel more realistic than other magical universes. The bureaucracy of the world, grounds the characters, and ads age to the world as a whole, making it feel refined. Perhaps the most well understood of all the various Ministry regulations is the “Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery”. Three times Harry is caught playing fast and loose with this law, once in The Chamber of Secrets (though technically it was Dobby’s fault), again in The Order of the Phoenix, and finally, later in The Prisoner of Azkaban itself. This couldn’t be clearer. Until a witch or wizard turns seventeen, they are not allowed to use magic outside of school.
So, when I turn on The Prisoner of Azkaban, and the first thing I see is Harry casting lumos under his bedsheets, witch no consequences; I’m understandably irked by the scene. Much like the scene with Dumbledore, I’m flustered by the fact that this scene happens for no real reason at all. The lumos scene happens as part of the opening credits. The light from the spell is the transition to reveal the title of the movie. Cuarón broke the most basic, most well understood rule of the universe for spectacle. This is a cardinal sin in filmmaking, and deservedly so.
Now that I’ve thoroughly trashed the film for seven minutes, it seems like a good idea to repeat the fact that, buying large, I like this movie quite a bit. I highly recommend you watch the video linked above. This is because I don’t think any amount of criticism of the film, should outweigh its well deserved praise. The movie is important in the series, not only because it changes the tone of the films, and enables the films that came after it; but also because it really is spectacular in its own right. The movie is consistent in its themes, more so than any of the others. While it deviates from the book more than the previous two films, it does so with the best of intentions. Largely this movie first sets up the dynamic of the movies and the books as two entities, to be enjoyed separately, but equally.