As both an iconic film franchise and beloved book series, Harry Potter is not lacking in strong, passionate takes. The world that J.K. Rowling created captured the hearts of an entire generation, and her stories were lovingly adapted to the big screen in a pretty darn great run of eight films in 10 years. Of these eight films, everyone has his or her favorite. It may be tied to which book they love best, which one conjures the strongest feelings of nostalgia, or which one most heavily features their favorite character. But I’m here today, on the 15th anniversary of the release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, to make the case that the third film is unequivocally the best of the bunch.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is perhaps the most important film in the Harry Potter movie franchise for reasons relating to what was going on behind the scenes. The first two films were adoring, faithful adaptations of Rowling’s first two books spearheaded by director Chris Columbus. He laid the foundation on which the entire franchise was built, and crucially put together the core cast that would remain (mostly) intact throughout its entire run. But after shooting Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets back to back, Columbus stepped away from the director’s chair to spend time with his family, and thus handed over directing duties to Alfonso Cuarón.
At this point, the producers of the film franchise could have gone one of two ways. They could have forced Cuarón to mimic Columbus’ style and essentially keep things the same. Or they could have given the Y tu mama tambien filmmaker and eventual two-time Best Director Oscar winner the freedom to play around with the form and put his own stamp on the franchise. Luckily, they chose the latter route.
Beginning with Azkaban, Rowling’s books start becoming much longer and far denser. While it was relatively “easy” to adapt Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets for the big screen without leaving out any major plot points, that task became more difficult as time wore on. So Cuarón and screenwriter Steve Kloves made the brilliant decision to hone the focus of Azkaban on Harry Potter. If a story or subplot didn’t directly affect Harry, it would fall by the wayside. This would become the North Star for the adaptations moving forward, and it’s a big reason why the Harry Potter film franchise was able to succeed without tripping over itself trying to cut down or fit in every single thing from the books.
So by significantly altering the adaptation approach with Prisoner of Akzaban, Cuarón put the franchise on a course that would ensure success all the way up through the end. But the second key addition Cuarón made that positions Prisoner of Azkaban as one of the most important Potter movies was altering the aesthetic approach. Columbus’ visual style in the first two films was fairly classic, with bright lighting and a traditional coverage style (though he was also constrained by the inexperience of the young actors). With Prisoner of Akzaban, Cuarón mixed things up significantly, working with cinematographer Michael Seresin to bring in a darker palette and more ambitious camera moves that served to underline the key thematic throughline of the story: change. This eagerness to switch up the visual approach without betraying what came before would become a mainstay of the franchise, as directors Mike Newell and David Yates would subsequently come in and feel the freedom to mix things up thanks to Cuarón’s handiwork on Azkaban.
But the visual approach and screenplay adaptation aren’t the only reasons Prisoner of Akazaban stands out as the best Harry Potter movie. It all comes down to the source material, and at heart Rowling’s third book is the story of change. In Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, Harry, Hermione, and Ron are children. But in Prisoner of Azkaban, the characters are entering adolescence and thus are undergoing a significant evolution as they work to figure out just what kind of adults they want to become.
For Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), this means confronting the truth about his family, and reconciling the fact that his parents’ best friend seemingly betrayed them. That puts the hormone-fueled Harry on a collision course with Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who he now despises and wishes to hold accountable for his parents’ death. It’s a revenge story and crisis of identity wrapped into one. For Hermione (Emma Watson), we see a young ambitious girl struggling to excel to the best of her abilities at school (made possible by the possession of a time turner) while also learning to bend the rules a bit to stand up to her friends (see: when Hermione sucker punches Draco). And for Ron (Rupert Grint), well Ron spends most of Prisoner of Azkaban losing track of and getting bitten by his pet rat (who’s actually Wormtail—twist!), but we love Ron all the same.