We live in a world that sees the Harry Potter films as inevitabilities. Of course the monstrously successful book series that shifted how we thought about the literature of children and young adults would be made into a monstrously successful series of movies with a smattering of directors who tackled the material with differing levels of success!
Hell, that’s how Marvel does it! It’s the template!
Except the first Iron Man film, directed by Jon Favreau (the guy who wrote Swingers and later directed Made, Elf and the criminally underrated Zathura) came out in 2008. The follow-up was director Louis Leterrier’s Incredible Hulk, which wasn’t great. He went on to direct Clash of the Titans and later gifted us with the Now You See Me cinematic universe. Marvel didn't launch with a template, it had to create one, and it may have had inspiration.
The first two Harry Potter films, directed by Chris Columbus, were released in 2001 and 2002. They were followed up by Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004, which was directed by Alfonso Cuarón, and that’s when shit got real.
I’ll let this episode of Movies with Mikey — which has become one of my favorite YouTube series about movies — explain the rest. His video is what got me started thinking about this topic, and Mikey Neumann does a good job laying out just how influential Prisoner of Azkaban has become to modern franchises. It showed everyone that bringing in a director from the outside, one with great sensibilities, can do wonders for your series.
Director Alfonso Cuarón took the perfect casting of Chris Columbus’ first two Harry Potter films and gave the world of Hogwarts a sense of both reality and danger. The kids dressed more recognizably, and the external world of Hogwarts came to life. The shots were long and gorgeous. The first moments of sexual energy began to crackle between the characters. The audience was growing up, and then all the sudden there was this amazing film that reflected that.
Watch the following scene:
There is a lot going on here. Look at how beautiful the scenery is, and how the magical and ancient architecture of Hogwarts seems to exist in an understandable, physical space. Pay attention to how long these shots last, and how much acting Daniel Radcliffe and David Thewlis had to do in order to sell the scene.
There are only three shots in two minutes. The camera establishes the bridge, we cut to the two characters speaking to each other, the camera holds them for the entirety of the discussion while Thewlis delivers a monologue and Radcliffe reacts to it, and then they come together again as the camera pulls away before cutting to a second establishing shot moving away from the bridge. It’s gorgeous, and its simple nature hides how technically demanding every aspect of this scene had to be, from the effects to the actors themselves.
Prisoner of Azkaban is still the best-looking Harry Potter film in the series
There is no aspect of these shots that doesn’t work, and the end result is beautiful. It’s the editing version of a Caprese salad; it may seem easy, but if you don’t start with the best ingredients there aint shit you can do.
Prisoner of Azkaban is still, in my opinion, the best-looking Harry Potter film in the series. It’s the one I always return to when I’m feeling down. And its success possibly emboldened companies like Marvel to invite directors like Shane Black and Joss Whedon and gave them the ability to bring their voices to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This, of course, brought its own success.
It may be this gives too much credit to one person, in this case Alfonso Cuarón, but the video above makes a great case for how important Prisoner of Azkaban has become in defining what a genre blockbuster can be, and just how good it can look.
If nothing else, go watch it again. It’s like pouring yourself a nice, warm coffee with a slight shot of rum. It’s comforting while still feeling a little dangerous.