20 Years of ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner Azkaban,’ and It’s Still the Best Film in the Franchise

Whether you love or hate it, everybody knows Harry Potter and the Biggest Franchise to Ever Exist. While the first film came out in 2001, forever cementing Harry Potter as one of the greatest book-to-film adaptations to date, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out on June 4, 2004. 20 years later, it’s clear that the third film in the eight-film saga is still the best one.

While the other Harry Potter films have their attributes, Prisoner of Azkaban excels in almost every area. The first two films, Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, focus on world-building and still treat the universe as youthful and innocent. The later films get so dark that they’re even rated PG-13. But Prisoner of Azkaban is pitch perfect.

The Iconic Moments

Of all the Harry Potter films, Prisoner of Azkaban easily has some of the most memeable and quotable moments. From Harry’s classic, “He was their friend!” to Snape’s “Turn to page 394,” many of the long-lasting Harry Potter quotes come from the third film. In addition, the often shared meme of Harry flying through the air on the hippogriff comes from Prisoner of Azkaban, as does Hermione’s unforgettable attack on Draco. We’re not saying the popularity of these moments is why the film is good — we’re just saying that the film is so good that it spawned all of these iconic moments.

The Acting Is Elevated

One of the big reasons Prisoner of Azkaban elevated the Harry Potter franchise is because of its director, Alfonso Cuaron. While the previous director, Chris Columbus, focused on the joy of magic, Alfonso put much more stock in the acting, casting, and character development. The young actors’ emotional ranges are put on display as they also tackle the experience of growing from kid to teen. In addition, Prisoner of Azkaban introduces four new adult acting icons: Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney, Timothy Spall as Peter Pettigrew, David Thewlis as Professor Lupin, and of course, Gary Oldman as Sirius Black.

The Cinematography

This element of what makes Prisoner of Azkaban great also comes down to the film’s director. Alfonso’s canon beforehand was much more indie and graphic—more focused on visual storytelling than other directors. There are several shots of the Whomping Willow throughout the seasons to show the calm before the storm. Most shots are beautifully framed with the mountains framing the background with recurring motifs of leaves and birds. Even more impressively, Alfonso is able to elicit true horror with the transformation of the werewolf, later mirroring that technique in Harry’s eye.

Ironclad Storytelling

This point could be hotly disputed because of how incorporating time travel into the Harry Potter universe created a whole other host of issues, from questions about why they weren’t used to stop Voldemort to how anything means anything if students can just use time turners. But this plot point aside, Prisoner of Azkaban fits together like a puzzle. Every element of the story leads into the peak and denouement, from the introduction of Sirius Black to Harry befriending Buckbeak the Hippogriff to Peter Pettigrew showing up on the Marauder’s Map. Everything in Prisoner of Azkaban happens for a reason, ending with Harry’s Patronus — another iconic quote: “Expecto Patronum!”

It’s Still a Coming-of-Age Story

Alfonso has talked often about how important it was for him to incorporate magic into the feelings of growing up. The most emblematic scene of this is when Harry, Ron, and a few of the other Gryffindors are eating candies that make them sound like animals (although Harry becomes a steam train instead). The candies don’t exist in the books, so some purists hate this scene, but it’s a true invention of Alfonso that shows how boys would act in a dorm at 13 years old … but with magic! Hermione and Ron’s first twinkling of teenage romance shows itself when she grabs his hand. And of course the opening of the film, in which Harry accidentally blows up his aunt, is the ultimate show of early and uncontrollable teen angst.

It’s that teen angst and heart underneath the magic and visual storytelling that make Prisoner of Azkaban the perfect dose of nostalgia for any Harry Potter lover.

Jamie Lerner is a writer, comedian, and musician who’s been writing about television and movies since she reviewed Mean Girls for her fifth-grade school newspaper.