The Boy Who Rocked!: Ranking the Potter-verse Movies (Complete with Fantastic Beasts!)
So I know this isn't going to sit well with a lot of fans of the Harry Potter Saga, but being completely honest with you guys I didn't come to be a fan of this series in the traditional way. I didn't read any of the books until well into the movie series, and even then I jumped ahead to the sixth book (the fifth movie had just come out) simply because I didn't want to be spoiled on the ending when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows finally hit bookshelves. I remember getting a lot of side-eye from friends as I read the Potter finale, like I hadn't earned it.
Well, you know what? I completely agree with them. I've had friends that have done similar things; one who skipped 14 volumes of Lone Wolf and Cub (there are 28 books) to go ahead and read the ending and another that skipped 2 seasons of Lost so they could watch the finale with everyone else, and in both cases it drove me absolutely nuts. On the other hand, those situations were about impatience for the most part, and while I didn't read books 1-5, I had seen all the films and was pretty well versed in the story up to that point. For myself, I simply didn't want to lose out on one of the big cultural moments of our time by having it spoiled for me and I admit to taking a shortcut. I remember not being lost at all while reading Half-Blood Prince, and still found it's ending most satisfying, and that's not even mentioning how much I enjoyed The Deathly Hallows, which is an epic finale that rivals both Return of the Jedi and both versions of Return of the King.
I also believe that what my situation was able to do was show me was just how terrifically crafted the Harry Potter movies really are. Directors Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell, and David Yates have carefully molded this universe into something that felt tactile and not superficial like so many blockbusters can. You can see why Potter is so elevated in the eyes of fans, as the series deserves its comparisons to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, leaving all of its YA imitators from the subsequent years to crash and burn.
J.K. Rowling and the series' film makers made me care enough about these characters that I wanted to catch up to the story as quickly as I possibly could before the ending without losing where I was. Rowling's creation has earned its place as a cultural touchstone and I couldn't be happier that the universe is coming back to theaters with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and beyond.
Now, while you'll see that I've ranked this list from my least to most favorite, I don't actually believe there is a bad movie amongst them. In fact, there's such a high level of quality to the films that even lesser Harry Potter entries rank higher than most movies of this type. So sit back and let's see if my list matches yours.
Warning: Spoilers throughout!
And with that,
It's Clobberin' Time!
9. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)
Directed by Chris Columbus
So I know to some, this will be heresy ranking the first film so low, but in all honesty this is the entry that I re-visit the least. Now credit where credit is due, Chris Columbus sets the template for this world and fills every corner of it with pure enchantment. From start to finish this picture is filled with whimsy, and to a viewer that was as highly skeptical as I was coming in, I was glad to be proven wrong. While Peter Jackson was kicking his Lord of the Rings Trilogy into high gear, I was so happy that there was an alternative for kids out there that wanted to disappear into their own fantasy world.
Also, huge thanks should go to Columbus for finding this amazing cast, as it's an absolute miracle that so few of them had to be recast over the years, and in fact I know some that would even argue that they prefer Richard Harris' Dumbledore to Michael Gambon. Apparently, Steven Spielberg was even courted to direct the picture at one point, but wanted to combine books and make the film a 3D animated picture in the PIXAR mold, so who knows what that would have been like? As it turns out, I'm glad we got the version of this movie that we did. On the other hand, the movie is so light that it doesn't carry the dramatic weight of any of the pictures and that follow, and while I love the design of Hogwarts and the movie as a whole, it's in Sorcerer's Stone that the whole thing feels the most like a "backlot".
8.Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Directed by Chris Columbus
So all of the criticisms I may have of the first film pretty much carry over to the second entry, except I still prefer Chamber of Secrets in most aspects. The movie is a little more expansive than the first film and Daniel Radcliff, Rupert Grint, and Emily Watson really start to come into their own as Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Also, I prefer the darker tone and subject matter of the movie, as we've finally shed the first film's introductions and get on with a fun mystery involving flying cars, evil diaries, and giant snakes. Simply action-wise I'd say that this second film ups the quotient almost 2 to 1 over the first movie.
Lastly, I believe the second picture is just a lot funnier than the original, thanks mostly in part to Kenneth Brannaugh's Gilderoy Lockhart (AKA: the MOST Kenneth Brannaugh role of all time). Lockhart is a buffoonish, grinning scene stealer who loves attention and fame more than anything else in the world and every moment that Brannaugh plays him is pure delight. There is a moment when the wizard walks in and smiles at a portrait of himself that depicts Lockhart painting another portrait of himself. The moment is pure comedy and the perhaps the funniest scene of the whole series, showing you absolutely everything you need to know about this character.
7. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
Directed by David Yates
There's a definite shift in tone that happens to this series once director David Yates comes aboard. Following the events of The Goblet of Fire that sees the full return of Lord Voldemort and the murder of classmate Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson), we see Harry and his friends shed much of the childhood whimsy of the first four entries and start to grow up a bit. Rebellion is the name of the game here, as teenage Potter and his crew have to band together to both battle the forces of evil as well as fight back against the fascist teacher Dorothy Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), charged by a fearful Ministry of Magic to undermine professor Dumbledore at Hogwarts.
It's unfortunate that there are so many growing pains when it comes to this fifth film, as the movie mirrors Harry's teenage angst with a story that's a bit unpleasant at times. This goes double for any sequence featuring Umbridge, as her oppressive personality, while completely in keeping with the character, takes away some of the fun that's to be had; her punishments coming off as particularly cruel while her comeuppance is not entirely satisfying.
On the other hand, there's the half of the film that shows Harry taking charge and training his friends in order to take on the Voldemort's army, and that portion of the picture is quite invigorating. From training montages to an awesome battle in the bowels of the Ministry of Magic, there's plenty to like here, capping off with a showdown between Voldemort and Dumbledore that would make George Lucas proud, and comes off as one of Michael Gambon's finest and most badass moments of the entire series. Hats off to Daniel Radcliffe also, who's able to nimbly pull off all of Harry's frustration and turmoil without the turning the role sour whatsoever.
6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
Directed by David Yates
I do wish the Harry Potter finale was a bit higher on this list, and to say that the film is not entertaining would be a complete lie, as the movie is simply packed to the gills with action and emotional beats. Perhaps that's the problem, as the movie is so packed I feel like it doesn't have quite enough time to breath before its off to the next battle or action sequence, and running time shouldn't be any sort of excuse because the book was split into two for this very reason. It's also possible that the picture simply couldn't be able to meet the sort of expectations fans were expecting after 7 books and 8 movies, especially after the last two films were pretty exceptional.
This is not to say that in any way is this movie bad. David Yates shows he is a director able to wow you with this type of giant spectacle, as The Battle of Hogwarts explodes with action featuring all your favorite characters battling giants, giant spiders, dementors, as well as Lord Voldemort's enormous ragtime band of Death Eaters. Ron, Hermione, and Matthew Lewis' Neville Longbottom all get their big moments, and I love that Maggie Smith's Professor McGonagall gets her last chance to be as badass as possible. I also can't see how anyone could be disappointed with Alan Rickman's final go-round as Professor Snape, as his character finally hits you with the biggest emotional wallop of the entire movie.
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
Directed by Mike Newell
Goblet of Fire feels like the end of innocence for this series. With Lord Voldemort returning to reek havoc at the end of this picture, everything starts to get dreadfully serious from here on out, so this fourth entry feels like the last hurrah for child-like merriment. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of heroics to be had here, as Harry is thrown into the Tri-Wizard Tournament and has to face off against dragons, mermaids, and other magical dangers, culminating with his first cinematic face-off against the Dark Lord.
As much as I love those aspects of the movie, there's no denying how much fun it is to watch Harry and company attend the World Cup of Quidditch or how awkward things get while a school dance veers the whole production into John Hughes territory. In all the adventure, it can get lost just how much these stories are about kids growing up and I relish these moments in Goblet of Fire. Also to be relished? Brendan Gleeson's "Mad-Eye" Moody who brings a cantankerous light touch to a lot of the proceedings.
Lastly, it cannot be overstated just what a coup it was to cast Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort. This series needed an iconic villain, and I don't believe anyone could argue otherwise when it comes to the casting or performance of "You know who". The Potter-verse needed its Darth Vader and boy did it ever find it.
4. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
Directed by David Yates
David Yates is back and crafts another absolutely beautiful movie, filled to the brim with imagination and huge action. Where so many prequels fail to capture the feel of what we loved before, Fantastic Beasts manages to bring back the wonder of Potter's world but also start anew with fresh characters and a fun new setting of 20s New York, with its speakeasys and fearful, temperance-inspired adversaries. It's actually pretty incredible how much this feels like one of the other movies in this series without any recognizable characters or even Hogwarts.
While the movie is perhaps overlong, a bit unwieldy, and does get really dark in its second half, there's so much visual splendor to discover here from dozens of magical creatures to a Stateside version of The Ministry of Magic to a dive bar that reminded me of the Mos Eisly Cantina. I also can't overstate what it's like to watch these happenings take place within a huge city as opposed to a far off castle (albeit one from a century ago), because it just opens up so many storytelling opportunities. The other films might have sequences within urban environments but few that were very significant. With this new series of movies, the constant danger of discovery adds a whole new wrinkle to the proceedings and not only does Fantastic Beasts belong with its brethren within this universe, I can't wait to see where it's able to take me next.
3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)
Directed by David Yates
I recently did a re-watch of the entire series to sort of get my mind right before seeing Fantastic Beasts, and if I had to pick a film that benefited the most by doing so it would probably be this one. Yes, this still can feel like only half a movie, and rightly so considering this is an adaptation of only the first half of J.K. Rowling's final Potter book, but where Deathly Hallows: Part 2 felt a bit over-stuffed and condensed, Part 1 gets room to open up and really takes it time to exploring these characters and the horrors they're going through.
The whole world is coming down upon these teenagers after the loss of Professor Dumbledore and we get a front-row seat to witness their despondency and rage, even as they lash out at each other. Much of the film is simply our core group (Harry, Hermione, and Ron) lost out in the wilderness, and on the run from the Death Eaters who are now in power. The friends are desperately looking for Horcruxes (pieces of Voldemort's soul) in order to the destroy them and their journey feels a lot like that of Frodo and Sam on the way to Mount Doom. The trio argue and fight, but you can also see how love wins out among them, strengthening them before the final battle. Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint are all superb here, giving nuanced and subtle performances showing complete control over these characters that they'd lived with for so long as this point.
2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
Directed by David Yates
I unabashedly love the sixth Potter entry for so many reasons. First and foremost for me is the solidification of Harry and Dumbledore, who were separated in most of Order of the Phoenix in order to protect Potter from Voldemort's prying eyes. As they explore the Professor's past, Dumbledore brings Harry into the fold in order to prepare him for the final fight with the Dark Lord, and Radcliffe and Gambon are once again excellent in these portions of the film. As the story reinforces the relationship with the only true father figure he's even had, the chemistry between the two actors is evident more than ever before, which is what makes the loss of Dumbledore at the film's end all the more heartbreaking. From Superman to Luke Skywalker, there's a point where every great hero has to face the loss of his mentor as a sort of final test before taking up his mantle, and when it comes here it hits as hard as it possibly can.
David Yates is in absolute control in this film; crafting a gorgeous and emotionally shattering entry, but also packing it with humor, due in large part to the contribution of Jim Broadbent as returning professor Horace Slughorn. Broadbent brings a welcome piece of silliness and vanity to his role, but tempers it with an undercurrent of sadness. It's Yates that outdoes himself though, crafting fearsome action and somber moments that equal aplomb. While the fiery destruction of the Weasly house and an epic confrontation with magical zombies brings the thrills you'd expect from one of these pictures, its the film's final moments of quiet loss and unity that stir you within, elevating this picture to one of the series' A-level achievements.
1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
When director Chris Columbus left the series after Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets the studio could have gone with another journeyman director to continue the series and it probably would have still made a ton of money and then gone on to make good, but not necessarily great films. Instead, WB tapped Alfonso Cuarón for the job, which showed the difference between just hiring a steady hand and instead vying for cinematic gold. While the director wasn't a household name at the time, he was on the brink of breaking out, which made him a perfect candidate for this type of franchise picture and the results speak for themselves.
The jump in quality is immediately evident, as cinematographer Michael Seresin's handheld camera changes the entire feel of the proceedings, leaving you a little off-kilter. From a pissed off Harry taking his frustrations out on the Dursleys to the insane bus-ride on the way to the Leaky Cauldron you know right up front you're in for a different experience. Every moment just feels more dangerous from an angry hippogriff to a clever time travel sequence, right up to the movie's incredible vengeance-filled finale of werewolves, killer trees and shrieking shacks.
It's not all spectacle that sets this one apart though. Cuarón gives real weight to this world, especially Hogwarts, which has a sense of geography like never before. Even the dormitories feel more authentic and dingy like a real one would, giving a sense of internal history. This is a world you should WANT to be a part of and even though it feels less kid-friendly it also seems more fleshed out, beautiful, and appealing.
Prisoner of Azkaban also gives us three of the series' most important performances; Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, David Thewlis as Professor Lupin and Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, taking over for the late Richard Harris. All do superior work as Oldman is wild and unhinged, while Thewlis' Lupin emerges as one of Harry's best father figures. Gambon also gives shades to Dumbledore we've never seen, ably pulling off the characters darker moments, while still giving plenty of paternal advice.
Of all the films, this one just has no down sides for me. This is an A-prospect of a director blossoming to A-list right in front of us on a gigantic stage and knocking it out the park. This is the type of hiring decision we see franchises like Marvel and Bond doing these days or one like WB taking a chance on Christopher Nolan taking over Batman. This is a blockbuster of heart and pageantry, which is why it stands as the best of the series.