APRILfonso Cuaron: 5 reasons why Prisoner of Azkaban (2003) was the best Harry Potter film

It’s Aprilfonso Cuarón over on Almost Ginger this month as I take part in the next instalment of Director of the Month hosted by French Toast Sunday. I have unsurprisingly chosen Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2003) to focus on. Which was, perhaps, one of Cuarón’s most surprising career moves.

Aprilfonso Cuaron: 5 Reasons why Prisoner of Azkaban (2003) was the best harry potter film
Courtesy of French Toast Sunday

It’s no secret I love Harry Potter (books and movies) along with many of my nearest and dearest and, of course, the rest of the western world. I am a proud Hufflepuff (I have the scarf to prove it) and I have both a Deathly Hallows AND chocolate frog key ring (that are both in use) from visiting the Warner Bros Studios over two years ago. The fandom actually started out as a Daniel Radcliffe obsession (many of the friends I’ve had since childhood will be only too pleased to tell you stories of that part of my life) into an obsession with the making of the films and discovering any Behind-the-Scenes tid bit that I could find. I genuinely believe the Harry Potter franchise played a role in my cinephilia.

Which brings us to the Harry Potter film that, despite your own preferences, is widely known as the best film. I’m talking about the Prisoner of Azkaban. And, because this is the only Harry Potter film Cuarón directed, I’m going to try and break down five stylistic and filmic-y reasons why it’s considered the best and what Cuarón contributed to Prisoner of Azkaban‘s success.

AprilFonso Cuaron: 5 Reasons why Prisoner of Azkaban was the best Harry Potter film
© 2004 Warner Bros.

1. The landscape

Question: This entire series is so dependant on plot devices and small nuggets of information that are embellished into really important pay offs in later movies, so then why did the production team on Chamber of Secrets (2002) put the Whomping Willow tree so damn close to the school when they knew in the next film it would have such prominence?

Because whomever was on the design team clearly didn’t give two hoots about the grounds beyond Hagrid’s Hut and the Forbidden Forest. But just look at the misty, vast landscape that surrounds Hogwarts that almost serves as a character in its own right in Prisoner of Azkaban. The moody, dark colours are a magic in itself and the perfect accompaniment for the darker narrative. It really sets the scene for Harry Potter to receive yet more bombshells, poor lad. And yes, you may argue that it’s the first time the plot really takes them outside to have this opportunity but… Quidditch? When Harry flies a broom for the first time in Philosopher’s Stone/Sorcerer’s Stone? (2001) The Quidditch pitch may as well be miles down the road from Hogwarts.

AprilFonso Cuaron: 5 Reasons why Prisoner of Azkaban was the best Harry Potter film
© 2005 Warner Bros.

2. The balance

A lot of people feel that Cuarón can be a bit “style over substance” but I completely disagree. I feel that the third film had finally found the balance between the technical, special effects aspects of the film which is so crucial to a film set in a fantasy world (sorry kids, you can’t actually fly on a broomstick but you’ll be pleased to know there’s no such thing as a Basilisk or Fluffy… Or is there…?) with a heartfelt storyline featuring characters you can really fall in love with.

AprilFonso Cuaron: 5 Reasons why Prisoner of Azkaban was the best Harry Potter film
© 2004 Warner Bros.

3. Poetic License

I’m not going to go into this in too much detail, but I like how Cuarón had the guts to not over explain everything and unless you wanted an 11 hour film OF COURSE NOT EVERY LITTLE NUGGET OF INFORMATION IS GOING TO BE IN THE MOVIE. In short: Novels paint the picture with words, films can do it audiovisually.

But let’s choose one specific moment that has most lovers of the book up in arms. When Lupin gives Harry Potter back the Marauder’s map at the end of the film, he knows the “Mischief Managed” pass code to turn the map back into ordinary parchment again. That’s it. The film doesn’t explain anything else, but book lovers are all “Why didn’t he explain why he knew it??” I have two answers. Answer one: He didn’t HAVE to. Answer two: Book lovers, you already KNOW why. Secondly, most newbies won’t have a clue what they’re missing out on, and those that do figure it out (because it’s not impossible, you know, people aren’t stupid) will love that they figured it out.

So to sum up, in order to make a great film out of a great book, some poetic license is required and I’m glad Cuarón had the balls to go for it. I read an excellent response to this debate, which went something like, “Cuarón didn’t just make an adaptation, he made a film.” There’s a lot of back and forth about this, but that’s the bottom line for me.

AprilFonso Cuaron: 5 Reasons why Prisoner of Azkaban was the best Harry Potter film
© 2004 Warner Bros.

4. The humour and the light

Yes, the film is more tonally darker and a lot of the colours are darker, but I think what we’re really seeing here is contrast as there is so much colour through the darkness. The Knight Bus flooring it through central London at night, the bright orange pumpkins that the threesome hide behind near the dark forest walls, the glimmer of greens and reds through the torrential rain during the Quidditch match. Things may have gotten darker, but that’s allowed for the beautiful contrast.

The same goes for the humour. The darker the stories get, the more humour seems to be injected. The Knight bus conductor and is bodily-impaired friend on the mirror, the fantastic Emma Thompson’s Professor Trelawney and her predictions, the Monster Book of Monster and even the stuff that’s added like “Is that really what my hair looks like from the back” isn’t cheesy and it gives the film a relatability. The humour that Cuarón would introduce in Prisoner of Azkaban would stem through the rest of the series, especially Half Blood Prince (2009) which I think is the funniest of the series.

AprilFonso Cuaron: 5 Reasons why Prisoner of Azkaban was the best Harry Potter film
© 2004 Warner Bros.

5. Gary Oldman

Okay, sooo… I’m not sure how much input Cuarón would have had in casting, but what a casting choice. YES.

What are your thoughts on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? Do you regard it as the best? There are no wrong answers on opinion after all!

Also, stay tuned for my May Blind Spot Series as I’m watching Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También (2001) and I’m very excited about doing so!

This feature is a series of posts run by French Toast Sunday. If you want to read last month’s entry on The Coen Bros click here.

Want MORE?

My Childhood Films That Made me Love Cinema

FEBgar Wright: The Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy Reviewed

MARCH of the Coens: Propp’s Thirty One Narrative functions of a Fairy-Tale applied to Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Sofia CoppolMAY: Close Scene Analysis of Lost In Translation (2003)

Terry Jilliune: Tideland (2005) and The Nature of Fantasy

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Aprilfonso Cuaron: 5 Reasons why Prisoner of Azkaban (2003) was the best harry potter film
Courtesy of French Toast Sunday


I'm the human and hair behind Almost Ginger. I'm a cinephile travel obsessive vegetarian currently residing in Manchester.

15 thoughts on “APRILfonso Cuaron: 5 reasons why Prisoner of Azkaban (2003) was the best Harry Potter film

  • 13/04/2015 at 7:06 am

    I completely agree! I think I watched this, before the fourth one came out like more than 10 times. I rarely revisit the first two movies and I always think about things that happened in Azkaban rather than the rest of the series.

    Though I haven’t watched it in a long time, I only remember the fact that the third movie somehow felt more grown up. I think Cuaron’s direction helped to take the franchise from childhood to almost like young adults because let’s face it, these three never really had a childhood to begin with – they were faced with evil very early on. The transition felt very rough in a way because the two first movies were so mellow in a way but beyond that, bam, you got yourself a very dark and yet, humor filled movie that is forever on your mind.

    This is a very lovely post! Great job!

    • 13/04/2015 at 1:00 pm

      Thank you! 🙂 Yeah I totally agree! The third feels very different to the first 2, quite starkly different as you say, and I feel like it was Cuaron that made the shift that the directors after him followed (strangely it was one of the lowest grossing of the series!). Though in the back of mind I feel like I love the film more because of Sirius Black and Remus Lupin…

      • 13/04/2015 at 1:08 pm

        Well.. maybe.. for me the third is also sort of my favorite book as well. So to see it on screen through Cuaron’s eyes felt right and comfortable, a great way of giving us the story and though it might not be his direction that makes the movie my favorite, and it’s actually the book, I think it might be the combination. (If this sentence made any sense at all! :D) Anyway, I wanted to say was that I think Cuaron came into the franchise in the right moment and sort of helped to push it towards the right direction.

        • 13/04/2015 at 1:17 pm

          Definitely! Yeah I’m sure being one of the best books didn’t hurt 😉

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  • 13/04/2015 at 5:51 pm

    No argument here. My favorite of the series. Wonderful points given.

  • 14/04/2015 at 2:00 pm

    Got to say I love your insight into my favourite film out of the series! Your points are spot on 🙂 Prisoner of Azkaban was such a noticeable turning point for the HP series and I am still very pleased with what Alfonso Cuarón and the rest of the production team produced. I have a feeling I shall be revisiting this film in the very near future…

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this 🙂

    • 14/04/2015 at 2:05 pm

      Why thank you! 🙂 so far we’re getting a lot of love for POA!

  • 15/04/2015 at 2:46 pm

    Oh my gosh… I was thinking about writing this identical post! No joke… same title and everything haha. I ultimately knew I wouldn’t have the time this month, so I am so happy to see this on your site! I agree with everything you’ve said. This movie just had the best of everything – story, directing, tone. It really stands out above the rest.

    • 15/04/2015 at 3:53 pm

      Woooahh, great minds eh?! I’m loving the love I’m getting for Prisoner of Azkaban, it’s a fantastic film and one that people seem to go back to rather than the rest of the films (which usually only get a look in when I’m on a Potter marathon!)

      • 23/01/2016 at 10:45 pm

        Love the beautiful visual theme of the clocks and the portrayal of time. Cuarón was a genius. This was the most visceral of all the films. My favorite by far!

        • 25/01/2016 at 6:25 pm

          Yeah definitely, the cinematography in this film is unparalleled by any of the others! I’m not sure it’s my favourite but then again I’m actually not sure which is my favourite…

  • 11/09/2016 at 7:18 am

    I watched this movie when I was a kid, before I read the book series. I liked it. I laughed. Then I read the book series. Read and reread them. And then I re-watched the movie. Tonight. I HATED it. I’m obsessed with Harry Potter and the inaccuracies in the movie were gut wrenching. I was thoroughly disappointed when the credits rolled. And the humor was just stupid! I mean, talking shrunken heads? C’mon! And all the additives in this movie that were not in the book???? I know they have to omit quite a few things from the book, but what gall Cuaron had to ADD drawn out and pointless scenes? That’s just an insult. Sorry, I’m not insulting your opinion or saying it’s wrong but personally I thought this was by far the worst HP movie of the series. I now know never to watch it again… I’ll just stick to the book. (Unlike Cuaron)

    • 14/09/2016 at 11:48 am

      Hey Elizabeth! Thank you SO much for your comment, the great thing about movies is that they are subjective and we all take away different things!
      You bring up a very good point that a lot of people have problems with in regards to book adaptations. Chunks of information that seemed of vital importance in the book aren’t in the film, the film tells events differently and adds things that aren’t in the book and what you imagine in your head when reading just isn’t how it appears in the film.

      However, it’s important to remember what the case would be if the film were to adapt, shot for shot, the book? Well, it would be about 42 hours long for starters. Important events that happen in the book over a matter of sentences (for example, Lupin turning into a werewolf) would be done quick as a flash in the movie and you would be incredibly bored by all the context. A book is an imaginative medium, and a film is audio visual. I always use the Great Gatsby as an example of how books and films portray a story. Daisy’s hair is described as both light and fair and in other scenes she’s brunette. This makes no physiological sense. To the reader, she therefore seems elusive, flighty and an enigma. But what are they going to do the for film, dye her hair a different colour in every scene? No, they come up with other audio visual ways to make her seem elusive. In the 2013 film she was first seen behind sheer white curtains making her looks mysterious and alluring.
      A film is not the book and thus the messages in a book do not translate onscreen that easily, I always try to ask myself if a story told through film works as a film, not just as a half-assed shrine to the sacred text of the book.

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