Continuing to steamroll on, the third film introduces the concept of the wizard prison Azkaban. It appears to be the only prison, and it is a place you do not want to go. The wizarding community is on edge, because of the notorious killer, Sirius Black has escaped. He is infamous among good wizards of his betrayal of his friends James and Lily Potter.
The kids meet their new Professor for the Defense Against the Dark Arts. Professor Remus Lupin is another mysterious character who appears to harbor a dark secret (but magically, was born with the last name that gives it away). He, however, seems very kind and Harry learns that Lupin was close to his parents.
The film also brings in two important plot devices. One is a cloak of invisibility (which will figure greatly later in the series) and the other is the Marauder’s Map. The map shows everyone who exists in the school and where they are. When Harry notices a person on the map believed to be dead, it kicks off a mission to determine what is going on.
A large focus of the story is Lupin teaching the kids to conjure a defensive spell known as a Patronis. The Patronis allows defense against mystical creatures and in this film, that is primarily the Dementors. Looking like a grim reaper, the Dementor is an Azkaban guard. They can literally suck the joy and will to live from your body, leaving the victim in torment.
Harry, Hermione, and Ron uncover information hinting that Black may not be who everyone claims he is. The story culminates in Harry and Hermione pulling a magical stunt to pull off some rescues and save the day.
Columbus stepped away as director for this film Warner Brothers brought in Alfonso Cuarón. This turns out to have been a good choice, as instead of being dedicated to forcing the novel into a couple of hours, he (and screenwriter Steve Kloves) focus on the tone of the story. Azkaban represented a turn towards darker themes in the books, and the film matches that.
Gary Oldman and David Thewlis are welcome additions to the cast, with Oldman turning in a manic performance, reflecting the decade or so of imprisonment. But the biggest change occurred because between Chamber of Secrets and this film, Richard Harris passed away. Harris was just about 70 when the first film was being made, and he did seem quite fragile in the first two films. This played into the warmness of Dumbledore found in the books. He was replaced by Michael Gambon (Ian McKellen was offered the role, but turned it down on the reasons that he thought it would be risky trying to play another iconic character after playing Gandalf and felt it inappropriate to take over for Harris who had considered McKellen a “dreadful” actor). Gambon’s approach to Dumbledore is very different from Harris. His Albus is a bit tougher and sterner. This gets tempered out as the series progresses. Part of this difference is likely due to Gambon never reading the books.
The visuals of the film stand out in this film, with far better CGI than the previous films.
After two decent films, the Prisoner of Azkaban represents a step up for the franchise.