Hi. I reblogged your post about the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and then got an anon asking me to elaborate on the thematic complexity of the film. Given it was your post, I was wondering if you'd write a bit more on the subject? I'd love to hear your thoughts. :)
I’m honored that you reached out to me about this movie; it’s one of my favorite films of all time, and I could write novels about it if I could.
Now, consider this: it’s 2004 and we’re seeing Prisoner of Azkaban for the first time. We as an audience have just gone through two films that mapped out the typical hero’s journey; Voldemort’s the antagonist, and Harry’s the hero that vanquishes him. Black-and-white narratives, clear borders to who’s noble and who’s evil. However, in PoA, we realize that these borders are actually very ambiguous, and Alfonso Cuarón exploits this concept quite beautifully in this film.
Take the title card.
Have you noticed what’s different from its predecessors?
The logo’s no longer golden.
It’s silver and gray, displaying both lightness and darkness in every letter. In fact, the very location where the logo floats around emulates light in a dark environment. Out of context, we can’t figure out where it even is, whereas in the previous films, we clearly see the logo floating around in the skies. This tactic foreshadows that there’s going to be a sense of ambiguity in PoA over what is good and what is evil, instead of giving us a clear cut story of the noble hero getting introduced to a magical and mysterious world [the golden logo with a stormy background in Philosopher’s Stone] or the valiant hero defeating the malignant villain [the sun shooting through the dark clouds in Chamber of Secrets]. Some examples of moral ambiguity in PoA include Sirius Black, who gets sent to Azkaban for a crime he didn’t commit; Remus Lupin, an inherently good person, but labeled as evil by society in the end since he’s a werewolf; Pettigrew, an individual that turned to the dark side out of cowardice and fear, instead of devotion to Voldemort.
PoA’s title card can also be taken more literally; since this is the transition film that’s going to set up much more heavier tones in the future, we’re going to be exposed to a lot more dark elements of the magical world in this movie.
Here’s a scene where Cuarón again emphasizes lightness and darkness, but with different thematic meanings.
We see a snowy Hogwarts, where everything is light until…
…the camera focuses on the clock and Harry behind it, who’s completely enveloped in darkness.
In contrast, his classmates play and prank each other in the light snow while they get ready to go to Hogsmeade.
Just from this single scene, Cuarón displays that Harry, surrounded by darkness, will always be separate from the other students at Hogwarts. No one in Hogwarts has dark forces threatening to consume them every waking moment. Everyone’s still able to enjoy the happiness and privileges of childhood innocence, while Harry’s had that innocence snatched away as a baby and grows constantly aware that a dark wizard plans on destroying him. This difference can also be seen without much cinematic analyzation; since Voldemort killed Lily and James, Harry’s had no one to sign the permission slip that allows him to go to Hogsmeade trips (Vernon and Petunia would have never signed it even though Vernon made a deal with Harry; let’s be realistic).
Now, let’s talk about one of my favorite shots of the film.
The camera zooms in on the dark Grim residing within the light tea cup, foreshadowing the dark forces that Harry must face. However, I also love this shot because it’s the second time we see the Grim as an evil omen—a red herring for the audience to consume. Cuarón wants his viewers to be afraid of the literal black dog and for them to associate it with evil, which fools non-readers into believing that Sirius Black is who the Grim was foreshadowing, since Sirius can turn into a literal giant black dog. However, once watchers get informed that Sirius is innocent, they finally realize that the evil force wasn’t Sirius after all; it was Pettigrew, who with his escape, finally turns the wheels in motion for Voldemort’s reemergence, and thus puts Harry in grave danger.
Another great scene that shows many thematic layers? Our first glimpse of the Great Hall.
The candles and the flames at the sides of the walls give the Great Hall a warm, golden atmosphere. However, we also see the tall windows behind the choir, dark with rain and lightning—a stark contrast to the rest of the Hall, implying that this comforting, light atmosphere of Hogwarts will be short lived. In addition, the choir sings an ominous song to the students, with lyrics lifted straight out of the Three Witches’ dialogue in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (”by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes”), a famous Elizabethan play that coincidentally also analyzes moral ambiguity.
With this discordant atmosphere, Cuarón gives us a sense of uneasiness despite the welcome and safe environment of Hogwarts we’ve grown familiar with in the previous two films. The message? There’s a greater form of darkness coming, so strap yourselves in: this ain’t your typical Columbus narrative. And he certainly delivers on this part; other factors besides Voldemort portray the darker areas of the magical world and there’s no happy or satisfactory victory to celebrate at the end of the film.
I could go on about Prisoner of Azkaban, but I’m afraid that’ll make this post too long for anyone to read! But thank you for the ask; it was so much fun to analyze this film again.