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Expecto Patronum: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban at 20

With time and hindsight, the “Potter” franchise has taken on something of a complicated legacy (especially for the series’ sizable sect of LGBTQ+) fans, thanks to the continually transphobic comments made by author J.K. Rowling. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” was a smash hit in 2004 when the earth moved with each new Potter release. Still, as the film celebrates its 20th anniversary in a new, post-Potter landscape, one begins to wonder what it was about “Prisoner of Azkaban” that conjured such universal praise upon release.

While some “Potter” entries may age less-than-gracefully, 20 years out from “Prisoner of Azkaban,” it still stands as the franchise’s finest hour. Seizing the script’s departure from series convention, director Alfonso Cuaron uses the murder of James and Lily Potter as the launching pad to craft a paradoxically whimsical yet haunting film. Putting you-know-who on the back burner, “Prisoner of Azkaban” is the wizarding world’s answer to a murder mystery.

Especially for viewers who were young when the films began, there’s an ephemeral quality to the Harry Potter films that makes them magical to watch. Between the speed of production (eight films in 10 years) and the revolving door of directors, the franchise grew up alongside its young leads: always changing, always evolving. 

It was that malleability and eagerness to explore that saw the franchise tap Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron to direct “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” following the departure of Chris Columbus, who helmed the first two films. Best known for the steamy Mexican road trip film “Y tu mamá también,” Cuaron seemed an unorthodox pick to direct the third installment of a children’s fantasy franchise. 

But “Prisoner of Azkaban”’s screenplay plays right to Cuaron’s strengths— a coming-of-age story seeped in tragedy and chock-full of messy, fascinating characters ripe for exploration. Most coming-of-age stories don’t involve time-traveling griffin rescues, sure, but tapping Cuaron to direct was a master stroke that allowed the franchise to grow organically.

Bringing him on to direct true children’s films like  “Sorcerer’s Stone” or “Chamber of Secrets” would’ve been one thing, but “Prisoner of Azkaban” is another beast entirely, marking Harry’s true turn into adolescence. Both Harry and Radcliffe are 13 now, and to be a teenager is to be messy, volatile, and emotional. “Prisoner of Azkaban,” in turn, taps Cuaron to usher Harry (and the franchise) into a darker place. 

“Prisoner of Azkaban,” the novel, marks the series’ turning point, as Harry’s story moves away from children’s fantasy and begins to uncover the darker, more grown-up underbelly of the franchise. At long last, the murder of James and Lily Potter (and the incident that gave Harry his scar) takes center stage, bringing Harry face to face with his tragic past in the form of his infamous godfather, Sirius Black. 

Returning for Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s third year at Hogwarts, Cuaron’s first order of business is destroying any pre-established conventions of Hogwarts as a safe haven. Where Chris Columbus had painted the castle as a warm, whimsical escape from the cruelties of Harry’s muggle life, Cuaron transforms it into something cold and remote. Suddenly, Hogwarts’ grandiose, gothic architecture is something out of a horror story rather than a fairytale.

Even the Quidditch field, the site of Harry’s first Hogwarts triumph, is no longer safe, with dementors lurking behind thunderclouds, ready to send Harry plummeting off his broom. From the Hogwarts Choir’s repeated refrain of “something wicked this way comes” to the silent screaming wanted posters plastered all over the walls of the Leaky Cauldron, Cuaron spends the first hour of “Prisoner of Azkaban” transforming the Wizarding World into a cold, haunting, paranoia-ridden nightmare, haunted by the ever-present threat of Sirius Black.

But for the boy who lived, a serial killer escaping prison to hunt him down is nothing new — he’s been defying death since he was an infant. Where the wizarding world sees Sirius Black as a danger, Harry sees an opportunity— a rare chance to learn more about his past and a tangible, living, breathing connection to his parents. His misadventures with the Marauder’s Map (as whimsical and iconic as they are in their own right) are motivated by a desperate, self-destructive search for answers about his own identity. 

As Harry continues barreling towards the truth, Rowling and Cuaron peel back the layers on their polite, soft-spoken protagonist, showing the first glimmers of the raw, steely core at the heart of the character. The sorting hat knew Harry was a Gryffindor, but “Prisoner of Azkaban” gives us our first taste of a bolder, brasher, more reckless Harry — one eerily reminiscent of his father. 

Radcliffe’s wholehearted performance continues to be the lifeblood of the series, but under Cuaron’s direction, 13-year-old Daniel Radcliffe finds a new scrappiness and ferocity to combat the imposing, oppressive gloom of his ever-darkening world. By the time Harry reaches the shrieking shack, he’s tired, angry, and at the end of his fuse — expecting to be let down (yet again) by the adults in his life when Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) appears in the Shrieking Shack at the eleventh hour, seemingly aligned with the murderous Sirius Black.

Lupin’s apparent betrayal is an especially painful sting after Cuaron and Thewlis have spent the film positioning him as one of the few true beacons of hope in Harry’s life— a soft-spoken, warm (if melancholy) professor whose kindness stands out in a sea of Snapes and Filches. With his haunted eyes and his strange scars, it was no real shock Lupin was hiding something, but the bond he forged with Harry (and the other students at Hogwarts, for that matter) was very much real.

But just as it seems like Cuaron and Rowling have executed a suitably macabre (but no less cruel) twist about what really happened to Harry’s parents, “Prisoner of Azkaban” yanks the rug out from under us yet again — with a burst of hope. Sirius didn’t do it, Lupin says, and the pieces begin to fall into place. The carefully placed red herrings with Snape and half-truths from Lupin were masquerading a remarkable truth: Sirius Black is innocent. 

After spending so long shunned, suddenly, Harry has a (literal) rabid dog growling in his corner — his godfather, Gary Oldman’s scene-stealing Sirius Black. Though Sirius doesn’t have all that much screentime in the series, Oldman embodies the part so wholeheartedly and viscerally that his presence looms large, even when he’s not around. He may spend most of “Azkaban” caked in dirt, but even under the grime, there’s an achingly childlike sweetness to Sirius that makes him the perfect, dedicated guardian for Harry. 

Between the likes of Oldman, Thewlis, and Alan Rickman, casting director Jina Jay assembled a formidable roster of professors, and Cuaron recognizes the caliber of talent at his disposal, putting them to ample use. The quippy, rapid-fire bickering between Oldman, Rickman, and Thewlis is unexpectedly delightful. It goes a long way to sell the notion that Sirius, Snape, and Lupin were once young Hogwarts upstarts themselves, getting up to their own youthful mischief.

For all the scenery-chewing Rickman does, though, the shared history between Snape, Sirius, and Lupin is also a bittersweet reminder about the cyclical, existential nature of Harry’s plight — Sirius lost his youth (and his sanity) trying to stand against Voldemort. Now it looks as if Harry is eager to do the same. 

The close-knit camaraderie between Sirius Black and Remus Lupin is cherished particularly by LGBTQ+ fans — Thewlis and Oldman’s kinetic physicality and shared intensity lead some fans to speculate about the nature of Black and Lupin’s relationship. Theories about queer Potter characters during the franchise’s heyday were nothing new. If anything, this one in particular was fueled by Thewlis’ claim that Cuaron “ had the idea” that Lupin was gay in Prisoner of Azkaban.

But twenty years later, and given the rocky state of the Harry Potter franchise’s relationship with representation and the routinely bigoted, anti-trans comments made by Rowling, it’s a testament to the strength of Oldman, Thewlis, and Cuaron’s work that fans are still eager to revisit Prisoner of Azkaban and the Lupin/Black bond.

"Prisoner of Azkaban” is also the last film to feature the music of John Williams, and though his work on “Sorcerer’s Stone” would go on to define the entire franchise, “Prisoner of Azkaban” has its own set of iconic tracks. From the soaring strings of “Buckbeak’s Flight” to the gleefully wicked “Aunt Marge’s Waltz,” Williams stretches the score to match Cuaron’s effortless tonal ping-ponging. 

This is all to say nothing, of course, of the hidden twist-within-a-twist: Hermione’s time-travel-assisted class schedule and the third-act caper to rescue Buckbeak. It’s a relentless, breakneck sequence of events that might be dizzying if it weren’t so seamlessly executed — Cuaron channels all the pent-up energy and tension built in the film’s first hour and redirects it to the ethereal, dementor-laden finale.

Though his contributions to film history will more likely be remembered in works like “Roma,” “Children of Men,” “Gravity,” and “Y tu mamá también,” to overlook “Prisoner of Azkaban” would be to gloss over one of the most unexpected but brilliant films of Cuaron’s career. Demonstrating Cuaron’s continued capacity for genre-hopping, “Prisoner of Azkaban” steers “Harry Potter” into murkier waters, creating an unlikely franchise favorite for LGBTQ+ fans in the process.

Between the ambitious story, vivid characters, and bold direction, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” at 20 years old is still a magical, melancholy coming-of-age story and a filmmaking triumph for a franchise whose creator continues to cloud its cinematic legacy.

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