Harry Potter Prisoner of Azkaban
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This Week in Genre History: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban unlocked what the series could be

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Jun 2, 2021, 4:17 PM EDT

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

Let's face it: A film series based on J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books was always going to be a smash hit. Had the initial casting been off, the franchise might have started on shaky ground, but, from the onset, the casting was so impeccably done that it's probably underappreciated how hard it was to pull off. Harry Potter was in good hands. On the whole, though, once you got the franchise off the ground, you were going to be in good shape moving forward. It's a globally beloved series of books that a whole generation of children was essentially weaned on. You could have made every film exactly the same, no ambition, no expansion of scope, no need to do anything daring at all, and the Harry Potter series would've still done quite well at the box office.

This is why it remains, 17 (!) years later, truly incredible that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film in the series that ultimately stretched to eight films, was directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Cuaron, who would go on to direct Children of Men, Gravity, and Roma, was considered a brilliant auteur at the time, thanks to his outstanding 2001 film Y Tu Mama Tambien. But, he'd actually had less success in Hollywood, with both A Little Princess (which is great) and Great Expectations (which isn't) financially underperforming. He was a risk to take on such a big, successful franchise. Luckily, it turned out he was the best thing to happen to it.

Why was it a big deal at the time? Chris Columbus was the ideal person to direct the first two films of the Harry Potter franchise. He was a proven name, he knew how to make a movie in a professional, efficient manner and he wasn't known for any sort of self-indulgent, artiste tendencies that would get in the way of what Warner Bros. was trying to do. Film buffs might not find much that's especially inspiring about the first two films, but nobody can deny that they are pleasant and well-made — exactly what they needed to be to kick the film franchise off. Both The Sorcerer's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets make sure to lay the groundwork for all future installments in a way that will make sure the train stayed on the tracks.

But Cuaron's hiring immediately raised the stakes. You weren't going to get something obvious and straightforward from Cuaron. Sure, he wasn't suddenly going to start telling the story backward, or in real-time, or in space, or something. This was still going to be a Harry Potter movie. But Cuaron's flair for visuals and his understanding of narrative would inevitably change this franchise. He got a bigger budget, and a little bit more freedom — not just to expand the canvas but make it a little darker. This ultimately made a ton of sense: The actors weren't just starting to get older, their characters were about to go on the most challenging, darkest, most harrowing part of their journey. The franchise needed to convey that things were about to change. Cuaron knew how to do this in his bones.

What was the impact? Cuaron's major moves mostly involved making the films more natural and less, as Guillermo del Toro (who turned down the opportunity to direct) called it, "cheery," but in practice what comes across most is how much the actors themselves have evolved between films. Azkaban marked Gary Oldman and David Thewlis' debuts in the series — two very "serious" actors with a long history in independent film. And, like Cuaron, and you can tell that their presence helped influence the performances of the three young actors at the series' core. Basically: Everyone's more grown-up. The stakes are higher, the emotions are bigger (yet subtler), and it just feels less like a "kids' movie." Everything gets turned up a little bit. Daniel Radcliffe himself says, to this day, that the first time he ever felt like a "real actor" was when Cuaron worked with him on this film.

Perhaps inevitably, the box office actually went down a bit from the previous two films. It is actually, to this day, the lowest grossing of the eight Harry Potter movies. (It did outgross one Wizarding World movie though — 2018's The Crimes of Grindelwald.) But, it was still huge, and a good argument could be made that Azkaban, which was slightly darker and slightly less accessible than the first two Columbus films, laid all the groundwork for all that came afterward. It made less money so the movies after it could make more.

Has it held up? It is remarkable, all this time later, how terrific this film looks. Now we know what else Cuaron is capable of — the dystopian vision of Children of Men, the ambition of Gravity, the Spielbergian mastery of the form of Roma. And while he shows off many of those abilities with Azkaban, what jumps out first from this film is just how incredible of a filmic experience it is just to sit with this movie. Everything seems palpable and breathing in a way that the first two films, for all their many, many charms, don't quite match. Because Columbus' movies did such a good job of introducing moviegoers to the magic of the Wizarding World, Cuaron had the freedom to make it feel even more textured and real three movies in. You can see it in the actors, too. They realize, perhaps for the first time, that this is a movie, and a franchise, to take seriously.

No Potter movies after this one had the scope and canvas as Azkaban. But they didn't have to. It was as if Cuaron cleared the brush and paved the path for the directors who came after him to follow. He would go on to great things, but his touch was forever on this franchise, and it was better, and more lasting, for it.

Will Leitch is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Tim Grierson review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.