The third installment in the Harry Potter franchise is less thematically poignant than the previous two films. But it’s also more technically accomplished and emotionally compelling.
Warning: some spoilers are in this review.
The primary theme of the series as a whole is bigotry. The first installment of the series focuses in on house rivalries and how that colors one’s perception of a could-be villain, while the second more directly tackles the ideas of racism and even racial cleansing.
The beginning of The Prisoner of Azkaban picks that up right where it left off. Uncle Vernon’s sister Marge is visiting, and she turns out to be even more vile than her brother. When it comes to Harry’s supposed bad path in life, Marge says “You can’t blame yourself, Vernon, it’s all to do with blood, bad blood.” This infuriates Harry, which leads to his accidentally blowing her up like a balloon. Naturally.
It’s not hard to see how this relates to the themes of the series as a whole. But the film leaves that idea right there, rather than using it to set a tone for the rest of the film (it will return to that idea in a later twist, but in a way that makes it appear thematically uneven).
Here, a different idea takes its place. Harry learns that notorious serial killer Sirius Black is on the loose. Because of this, the dementors have come to Hogwarts – magical creatures that feed on the happiness of people. They’re the guards of Azkaban (the wizard prison), and have come to the school looking for Sirius Black. Harry is especially vulnerable to them, which causes no end of self-consciousness and frustration for the young wizard. The dementors themselves form just as much of the plot of this film as Black’s escape does, and the reason why is hardly an accident. But more on that in a moment.
“What does that have to do with me?” Harry asks of Sirius Black’s escape. And yet, it isn’t too long before Harry learns that the notorious Sirius Black was once his father’s best friend – and Harry’s godfather – before betraying them and turning them over to Voldemort. It’s at this moment that you can first see Daniel Radcliffe really coming into his role as Harry – when he declares that he’s going to kill Sirius Black.
But there’s a curious dichotomy here, because while the dementors are feeding on Harry and he’s feeding his anger and hate, Remus Lupin, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, is a calming voice. Remus went to school with Harry’s parents, and gives Harry a window into the family he didn’t get a chance to know. It’s Remus who teaches Harry the defense against dementors, called a patronus, which relies on a powerful happy thought.
The fact that Harry needs a happy thought to overcome the dementors is extremely important. It reminds us of the scripture “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” While Harry is struggling with his own anger (and Hermoine as well, who punches out Malfoy in a particularly satisfying scene), Remus has taught him to foster happiness and positivity. It doesn’t hurt that he’s formed a strong bond with the teacher as well (David Thewlis and Daniel Radcliffe are particularly good together on screen, too).
That focus pays off when the final climax comes. As Harry learns who the true traitor is, and that Remus wants to kill the man to avenge his beloved friends, Harry doesn’t join him. He stops him. He has no abiding love for the man, but he recognizes in that instant the difference between justice and revenge.
While this film does not have the strong emphasis on bigotry and racism (although there is a nod to that at the very end of the film), it is meant as a character development piece. And that’s something it accomplishes quite well. I’ve seen this film close to a dozen times by now, and every time I find myself affected by the emotion of Radcliffe’s performance, as well as those of Thewlis and Gary Oldman (Sirius Black). The idea of overcoming evil with good is a powerful one, and sets the stage for an important idea that will come much later: what separates us from them?