It’s worth saying from the top that I don’t think the quality of the Harry Potter films as a cumulative story is up for debate, and my aim isn’t to shout down the throats of those who enjoyed these movies and / or enjoy them now. It is fun to be a part of something, and across all fandoms, Harry Potter’s series remains a particularly positive and enriching one about growing up and doing the right thing. It’s a perfect blend of inspirations and genres that arrived at just the right moment for international popularity, and I have no reason to diminish their overall quality. These stories mean a lot to me, too.
Born in 1989, I was the perfect age to grow up alongside the release of the books and also the right age to have grown out of the movies by the time they ended in 2011. I remember loving the first two — which we owned on DVD — and disliking the third. I watched the fourth at a birthday party in high school and may have seen the fifth at some point, too. But I skipped the sixth and seventh movies out of disinterest and ultimately caught the final movie at a matinee out of perceived obligation.
I attended press screenings for the first spinoff, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and wrote our review of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Both are terrible and weren’t worth revisiting for this essay.
These days, I work at home — which has allowed me to watch full series of films while engaging in my day job. Aly owns all eight Potter films and they’ve sat in our collection, occasionally calling to my curiosity. It’s one of the few major franchises I once cared about with gaps to fill. So I decided to shit or get off the proverbial pot(ter), if you will, and give the cinematic saga a go from start to finish. Here is how I felt about each entry.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The first film remains the high point of the movie series. Director Chris Columbus was brought on by the producers because of his respected skill with children’s adventure films (having written The Goonies and Gremlins and directed Home Alone and Adventures in Babysitting), and the result is a steady hand on a movie whose primary task was to establish the visual language of the Harry Potter universe. How do you please millions of children expecting to see their imaginations leap onto the screen? I can still remember my personal critiques at the ripe old age of 12, but they’re unimportant: It seems undeniable that Columbus and his crew did a historically wonderful job at translating Hogwarts, Hagrid, magic and everything else from J.K. Rowling’s source material into the physical world. So good that there is a theme park based off of this very look.
The child actors — Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Emma Watson as Hermione, and Rupert Grint as Ron — were all perfectly matched to their characters, if characteristically rough for such young performers.
Like the book upon it was based, Sorcerer’s Stone is a sweet adventure story about a boy who wants to belong, whose good heart wins out in the end. It moves at a steady clip, filled with incident but also nice character work and world-building. This is a classic.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Columbus and crew returned for the second film, which is burdened with heaps of exposition endlessly spoken aloud by characters whose responsibility it becomes to shoulder a long and complex mystery plot while keeping key scenes from the books present for critical fans. I remembered preferring this entry to the first, so I was genuinely surprised when it grew tiresome, quickly. The only highlight is Kenneth Branagh as braggart con-wizard Gilderoy Lockheart, basically playing a heightened version of who he appears to be in real life.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Usually hailed as the best of the series, Azkaban is the sort of movie that earned a reputation of quality because a big-name auteur’s name is attached to it and he makes the color palette darker and more dreary. Never mind that Alfonso Cuarón’s handling of the story is limp and straightforward, the first of the series to really become as much about ticking boxes as it is telling an actual story. Azkaban is a story about dark omens and portents as Harry faces becoming a teenager as well as demons from his parents’ past. Although Cuarón understands the core and captures an aesthetic, the movie is simply too fast and flighty for it to sink in on a character level. The confrontations at the climax, in particular, feel horribly rushed. This is also the first movie where Professor Snape — arguably one of the integral characters of the whole story — feels sidelined by time constraints. This entry never much worked for me, and still didn’t. It’s been a while since I read the books but recall this one being my favorite of them at the time (which also seems to be the consensus), but it’s far from my favorite of the movies. And that re-casting of Dumbledore (upon the death of previous performer Richard Harris) is so bad that it infects the remainder of the movies.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Mike Newell’s breakneck adaptation of Goblet of Fire stands apart from the rest of the series because it gives zero fucks about slowing down and has the kinetic energy to earn it. Subsequent films are move-move-move but lethargic due to their expository plots and lack of incident. Fire, with its Triwizard Cup story, has plenty of opportunities to make things move along with magic action and uses them to its advantage. Even before that, though, the film opens with a 10-minute intro that features a Quidditch tournament, a Wizard KKK rally, and Harry being knocked unconscious twice. It cuts tons of material from the book and relies solely on the interpersonal drama between Harry, Ron, Hermione and their raging hormones to convey character beyond the tournament. But it works, thanks to the simplicity and universal pain of realizing you’re now horny. His hair really does suck, though. And wow, that Dumbledore — garbage.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
After four films with shifting directors and visions (guided by the overall world design of Columbus’ films), Order of the Phoenix, Warner Brothers and Rowling found their company man to ensure the money train kept on chugging. David Yates is a workmanlike director whose sole mission, it seems, was to adapt the final half of the series as closely as possible to the books without venturing too far off pasture. Phoenix is the longest and possibly most emotionally complicated of the novels, and the movie is hardly up to its standard. However, taking into account that almost none of the movies is particularly up to the standards of its source material, these last four movies are graded on a curve I call the “Did I give a shit for even half a second” test. And of the final four movies, Phoenix is the one I enjoyed the most: Yates has a flair for action, and the final sequence in the Ministry of Magic is particularly well-envisioned. It’s the first real magical duel in the series and it fucking pops. Additional points for giving Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) a few good moments because the other movies in which he appeared sure didn’t. The final battle between Dumbledore and Voldemort is hampered by that terrible Dumbledore casting but impresses nonetheless.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
My second-favorite of the books (when I last read them 15 years ago) and a movie I wanted to like much more than I did. At this point in the series, everything is falling apart for the world around Harry and his gang. But they’re still safest at Hogwarts, where they’re primarily concerned with who wants to fuck whom. They’re a few books behind the rest of the fandom; by the time this had been released, I’m pretty sure millions of reams of fan-fiction had already been written and red lines drawn by segments of fandom who had discovered shipping via this series. Rowling goes with the most predictable pairings, which I guess pissed everyone off because her entire perception of reality is as heteronormative and whitewashed as possible — which ran counter to the diverse and endlessly thirsty fandom.
But the whole Harry Potter series is about an extraordinarily boring little boy getting everything he ever wanted: Having your two best friends get married and marrying the sister of you best friend all goes along with the dopey level of happily-ever-after that the series provides. Is it well developed? I don’t remember the books, but it’s pretty lame in the films, where the plotting requires the story to move along from scene to scene without a moment to slow down and smell the roses. Who is Ginny, again? It’s notable that at the end of the final movie, she doesn’t have a single line.
“Boring” is the best descriptor for Harry as a character. But at the end of the movie, Radcliffe gets a single moment to be goofy, thanks to a potion. It’s the first time he, as an actor, escapes from the painfully straitlaced Harry and really give us a hint at the actor who would later play a farting corpse in Swiss Army Man (a very unique and must-see movie).
Half-Blood Prince doesn’t have much time to engage with the titular mystery, and its famous twist ending is once again bungled by the film series’ two greatest storytelling weaknesses — not enough screen time for Snape when he isn’t directly needed by the plot and a horribly cast Dumbledore who doesn’t feel like a character worth crying over.
Yates has a chance to display his action chops with a superfluous corn-field chase as well as the cave fight toward the end when Harry and Dumbledore fight off zombie-like monsters. Neither sequence is quite enough to save the overall movie, however.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2
The best thing to come out of this story being split needlessly into two parts was the eventual attempt by every other franchise to split their finales into two, resulting in studios realizing it was a losing bet and then Marvel Studios taking heed of the lesson and creating two separate movies for their finale to the Infinity Saga. Here, Part 1 is the kind of movie that really feels like it just sort of …. ends. Yates does an adequate job setting up an apocalypse scenario for the Wizarding World and gets mildly good mileage out of it … for a while. It gets old, however. Scenes from the books are crammed in because the time is there for them, but they’re neither cinematic nor particularly interesting to the overall plot. The wedding, the Ministry heist, Ron’s drama and the Lovegood Manor are all dreary, lugubrious yawns. Dobby’s return — having been absent since the second film although he plays a larger role in the books — feels out of nowhere and not half as heroic and ooh-rah as it feels in the books. Ending Part 1 on his death feels particularly over-confident.
Surprisingly, Part 2 isn’t much better than Part 1, although Yates has more interesting action bits with which to work. I like the Gringotts heist and the first portion of the Battle of Hogwarts. But unfortunately the third act just never knows where to end, and the Yates tradition of botching emotional moments by never understanding how to convey them comes out in full force when Harry’s “death” is bookended by expository scenes of characters just saying shit verbatim from the books. Snape, once again, gets short shrift, his big character moments happening by way of the Pensieve in as melodramatic a fashion as possible. The sequence of him cradling Harry’s dead mother while lil’ Harry screams in the background is upsetting for natural reasons but deeply overwrought. It feels iconic for the wrong reasons. There is no sense of emotional discovery to be had because Snape is a nothing-burger character onscreen. It takes my level of emotional investment for granted.
Add in the unnecessarily prolonged Harry-versus-Voldemort fight and … everything is simply far too belabored. After the endless battles, Hermione stops and ask Harry to explain the convoluted, dopey Elder Wand horseshit to the audience after having defeated Voldemort. As if anyone really gives a shit. The Elder Wand stuff was a hokey addition to the lore, but it was the means by which Rowling could stall Voldemort in order to allow Harry and friends to hang Horcruxes in the book. The film’s inclusion lays bare the weirdness of spending the sixth movie introducing the final McGuffins only to have three more added because the plot was otherwise unresolvable without Harry murdering Voldemort or vice versa. Without having a quest of his own, Voldemort looks like a real limp-dick doofus. The problem with these movies is that there’s so little overall world-building and atmosphere in the back half of the series that Voldemort feels this way no matter how faithful the scripts are to the source material.
Truthfully, the clumsiness of the Hallows plot was just a preview of things to come in the prequel movies, which are full of arbitrary magic shit and a bunch of meaningless gobbledygook. Like I said before, I don’t feel like it’s worth writing about those, but I’ll say one thing: Despite being dreary and kind of dreadful, the final Harry Potter movies still remain watchable due to the cast and core story about growing up, taking responsibility and caring for your friends. Those spinoffs lack a story to tell and are the epitome of soulless corporate cash-ins. Even Disney’s Star Wars products have some thematic resonance even if they, too, are examples of late-stage mainstream fandom.
Harry Potter Films, Ranked
I am glad I revisited this series of films because it sated a curiosity I have had for some time. I’ve now seen all of them, which means I can safely say I don’t plan on ever really watching them again (even though, as a parent, I’m sure I’ll probably have to do so). At least I’ll enjoy watching the first and fourth movies to some extent.
Anyway, here is how I rank this collection of unremarkable three-star (or lower) movies:
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Parts 1 and 2)
- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
- Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald