Though the Harry Potter franchise ended on a high note – unless we understand Deathly Hallow Part Two’s epilogue as an indicator of a possible spinoff franchise with Potter offspring inventing their own bald, noseless villain – the “Prisoner of Azkaban” was the series’ peak as a movie that could stand apart from the others and maybe on its own.
In “Azkaban,” time passes, hurries us on with and past loved ones toward death and so the clips of Whomping Willow bookmark the film with its journey through a year’s seasons. The story never really lets its characters or ideas wonder about as in many of the other Potter pictures. “Azkaban” draws its narrative around approaching death, time and memory.
The heavy use of fade outs, the presence of clocks and the repetitive “We have to go” outbursts are all there to make the audience aware of the passage of time (some relied on to an annoying extent). There’s some time traveling and a hourglass time device. A buckbeak, cherished by the giant, is slated for the chopping block by a Medieval Death-like executioner. Harry’s uncle likes to assume the shape of a black dog, confused early in the movie as the “Grim,” another sign of approaching Death.
Then there’s the icy and soul-emptying ghouls called Dementors. The Dementor’s Kiss, according to Hermione, is worse than death, leaving the recipient hardly alive with “No memory. No sense of self.” So Professor Lupin trains Harry to use a Patronus charm against the Dementors. Its magic requires a memory filled by strong emotion, so Harry recalls a memory of those dearest to him, his parents.
Throughout the film, Harry holds tightly, even arrogantly, to the memory of his parents: with the Dursleys (and the aunt), with Snape in the hallway and then with Lupin and Black in the Shrieking Shack. Harry finally holds tightest and most blindly to the memory of his parents with Hermione by the lake as he watches the Dementors kill him and his uncle, defiantly insisting his father will appear and save him.
In one of the franchise’s strongest moments, Harry can no longer wait for time to pass. He runs to the lake’s edge and conjures the Patronus, releasing his child-clinging and conquering a fear rooted in a death of self without memories. His father is there until later explained to be a reflection of Harry himself though the shape of the Patronus still confirms the lingering memory of love for him. Harry conquering death by accepting the approach of death and the trust in a divine love filling us, as Lupin says, “Every moment of every day.”
Those who objected to “Prisoner of Azkaban” for departing from the child-like atmosphere of the first two films, for bringing the characters into a more adult environment were correct in noticing the transition. It was the first and last time Harry Potter would triumph over an internal struggle and confront death believably.
“Prisoner of Azkaban,” though flawed more than I have digits to count, challenged Harry Potter with the most convincing villain in the series – Harry’s own death. Voldemort was a strictly external antagonist who dumbly insisted on fighting a little boy instead of destroying the world around him.