This article contains spoilers for the Harry Potter movies.
The Harry Potter films didn’t need to be good.
The books were already a phenomenon. Only Twilight and Dan Brown’s novels have resulted in midnight openings at bookshops across the world in recent years, and when you look at their film adaptations (Angels And Demons grossed nearly $500 million worldwide, despite being Angels And Demons), it’s clear: the Harry Potter films didn’t actually have to try that hard to be a success.
Across eight films, they told the story of death-magnet legend boy Harry Potter and his loyal flame-locked sidekick Ron as they courted whimsical oblivion on a roughly yearly basis, getting rescued repeatedly by Girl Guide/Wikipedia hybrid Hermione Granger. They battled fairly incompetent evil fairly incompetently, grew up before our very eyes, and eventually lived happily ever after by becoming middle class.
The main reason I like these films is that they’re inherently silly. Not the ostentatious quirkiness, which varies in quality, but the sheer daftness of the situation. I find it very endearing that teenage Voldemort spent hours working out an evil-sounding anagram of his name, that Ginny Weasley learned to flirt by watching Ace in classic Doctor Who episode The Curse Of Fenric, and the killing curse scans quite well with “’ave a banana.” Wizard schools apparently greet each other with performance art pieces, don’t teach English, maths or sex education classes, have inconsistent geography and maintain a house cup system that is clearly open to abuse. It’s best not to take it too seriously.
Despite being intrinsically daft, though, these stories also depict death as a bigger deal than many other blockbusters. Death isn’t just relegated to the background; it’s dealt out at regular intervals and makes an impact. While there is spectacle in these movies, it usually involves Death Eater attacks on unmanned architecture (Death Eaters are obsessed with this. At the Battle of Hogwarts they set fire to the Quidditch arena even though there’s no one there). When a non-wizard family is killed off-screen, it convinces Hermione to wipe her parents’ memories of her to keep them safe.
The fact that these two elements are present leads to some tonally jarring moments, and being so silly severely dents the credibility of the story’s bad guys. None of the films manage to combine these discrepancies perfectly, and none are classic movies, but as one whole story they’re an impressive and influential piece of filmmaking that utilised and created a whole lot of love on both sides of the camera.
Not too shabby, considering they didn’t have to be that good.
Here then, in reverse order, is how I rank the films…
8. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone
Let’s address a curse of the child actor: seeing your entire teenage years unfolding onscreen, and knowing that the best you could do at that age was going to be preserved forever. Overall though, this is the only film where it’s hugely noticeable, where you can work out the punctuation in the script from the pauses they leave. Nonetheless, you still get the sense that they have a grip on their characters (the look of withering scorn Hermione gives Ron after he says ‘This is light?’ for example), and compared with the one-line extras in the Leaky Cauldron they’re practically Meryl Streep. It’s quite impressive watching them improve with age and grow into their roles throughout.
The main problems with the first film are not the acting, but the script and the music. John Williams’ theme is very familiar, and its only once he re-arranges it for Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban that it starts feeling distinct from his back catalogue. The rest of the music in this film is too high in the mix, and registers like a polite but annoying man tapping you on the shoulder and saying ‘It’s magic, you know, it’s all magic.’
The script, being the first film of a franchise, is full of exposition, but almost none of it is good, clogging up the story and stopping it flowing smoothly. It’s a burden for young actors (Harry repeatedly asks questions with really obvious answers), but even the immaculately cast adults can’t inject much life into things. It’s not the best book in the series either, so it was always going to be a challenge (the plot is driven by Hagrid’s stupidity), but it’s a very safe adaptation that doesn’t linger long in the memory.
7. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1
There are some brilliant moments in this one. It starts quite well with everyone looking suitably grave, has some fun with the multiple Harrys and the infiltration of the Ministry of Magic, and sets up some overwhelming odds for the quest to find and destroy the horcruxes.
And then they go camping.
Splitting the seventh book into two films means the first part suffers hugely due to its abundance of nothing. The lack of progress does effectively communicate the hopelessness of the situation, but it’s also not very interesting, and that’s something no amount of slow dancing to Nick Cave can change.
Harry and Hermione go to Godric’s Hollow purely for something exciting to happen, then go back to camping again. Eventually Ron comes back with everything that they need because otherwise this film would be nine hours long. Things start picking up again, but by then even the beautifully animated Deathly Hallows tale isn’t enough to counteract the slog that is the middle of the film.
6. Harry Potter And The Chamber of Secrets
After director Chris Columbus delivered safe and steady work on Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, Harry Potter And The Chamber of Secrets instantly seems more confident, and ready to build on the foundations laid by the first film. It opens with a big aerial shot of suburbia, demonstrating a visual eye lacking in the first movie. The camera work is much smoother, impressive without being ostentatious.
The Weasleys are set up really well, and now the character work is laid and they’re more confident actors, the central trio feel a bit more like real people. Shorn of exposition duties, the script is able to lighten up. “I was just sitting on the U-bend, thinking about death…” is still one of the best lines in the whole series.
Plot wise, though, the stakes aren’t that high yet. We’re still in fantasy romp territory here, it’s a simple story told efficiently. Fawkes the plot-solving phoenix’s arrival at the finale is not going to be a surprise to most viewers. At least Harry has learned how to solve basic mysteries over the summer, freed up by not having to ask exposition questions all the time.
It’s worth mentioning here that Richard Harris, making his final appearance as Dumbledore, knew he might not last through all seven adaptations, but his granddaughter really wanted him to do the role. While it’s a shame that he never got to develop the character further as he wanted to, Harris also didn’t want Harry Potter to overshadow the rest of his career. So, with that in mind, go and watch This Sporting Life as soon as you can.
5. Harry Potter And The Goblet of Fire
In the first 20 minutes of this movie we see the Doctor, Edward Cullen, a murderer from Hollyoaks, huge CGI Irish stereotypes, Eric Sykes, and Trigger. Plus Lucius Malfoy has got camper, somehow. It’s a heady mix.
There’s also a moody colour palette and a lot of brisk, economical storytelling in contrast to the loose, lanky haircuts. The abrupt scene endings suggest there’s an even longer cut out there somewhere (out of interest, would anyone else be up for Lord of the Rings Extended Edition style Potter releases?).
The overall effect is that nothing is allowed to breathe. Michael Gambon can barely contain himself either. The beginning of the Second Wizard War is rushed, meaning that the best bits of the film are the potentially superfluous character building scenes and the Yule Ball. These are well observed, funny, and give Maggie Smith a chance to go to at least 90% Jean Brodie. Brendan Gleeson still wins the film, though. Sometimes Harry Potter really needs Mad Eye Moody’s grumpiness to cut through the tweeness and lame attempts at swearing.
Also, Robert Pattinson – here playing pant-melting gentleman redshirt Cedric Diggory – proves he can act by making the scene where he tells Daniel Radcliffe to take a bath with an egg seem normal. Radcliffe, meanwhile, has learned how to do shouting acting to good effect when Diggory dies and Voldemort – complete with a goth-conehead posse out of an abandoned Monty Python sketch – returns. While the Dedric Ciggory scenes get saccharine, it’s impressive to see a film put so much weight behind just one death.
4. Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince
Harry Potter films are probably best watched in close proximity to each other, as a lot of the fall out from the previous movie is dealt with at the start of the next one. Here, though, the word ‘fallout’ is probably a bit tactless.
This is the one where Dumbledore dies and so, logically, it’s the funniest movie of the series. It starts slowly, with Harry missing the Godfather he barely knew, then turns into a romantic comedy for most of its duration, then occasionally remembers that the Dark Lord is trying to kill Harry’s old teacher and cuts to Draco Malfoy looking miserable by a cupboard.
Michael Gambon is having a ball now as Dumbledore, after an iffy second film, gleefully indulging in spaced-out non-sequiturs. The three leads display excellent comic timing. For Rupert Grint, this isn’t a shock as he’s been the Gimli of the franchise since its early days, but it’s nice to see Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe get some punchlines in, meaning this film has uniquely frivolous moments such as the ‘But I am the chosen one’ scene.
As a drama, though, it seems oddly muted. Arthur Weasley seems only mildly irked at the destruction of his house, and the death of Dumbledore is rushed. It’s a very odd film, this one, structurally and tonally. It’s like someone decided to remake The Empire Strikes Back with a rom-com instead of Yoda, and then got carried away.
3. Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban
This film starts so well. Even after the improvements in Harry Potter And The Chamber of Secrets this feels like the franchise is stepping up a gear. The little details and embellishments, the fleshing out of minor characters, the sound effects and camera angles…it’s building a live action cartoon and it’s kinetic, sweeping you up gleefully on the journey and then…it just sort of sags for a bit, building up clues for the finale and keeping things ticking over, but it doesn’t soar again.
It picks up when Sirius Black finally appears, and there’s some satisfying time travel plotting (through a useful device that never appears again) but it can’t keep up its initial momentum. The film suits its breezier moments, but isn’t quite up to its darker edges yet. Daniel Radcliffe was unfortunate to be given a lot of angry shouting acting to do while his voice hadn’t quite broken.
Nonetheless, this is a fan favourite. Alfonso Cuaron’s direction helps makes Azkaban the most joyful film of the series, bursting with energy and making the magic more than wondrous: it’s finally fun.
Still, it’s bit cheapskate of Harry not to buy his own broomsticks, right? The guy’s minted.
2. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2
AKA Snapey Breaky Heart.
Regarding death in Harry Potter: you don’t see everyone die, possibly because they couldn’t get a wall-wrangler booked in time for Fred Weasley, but their deaths work better here than in the book nonetheless. The main dramatic arc of this film is Harry coming to terms with his demise, which is done really well. The sense of guilt builds perfectly, with each death bearing down on him until he learns that he absolutely has to die if there’s to be any hope for the rest of his friends. From Snape’s death in the boathouse until Voldemort’s killing curse, the film is merciless in laying on the pathos; Harry’s journey is a series of gut-wrenching realisations.
It’s such a shame that Voldemort is a bit rubbish though.
Why does he continually trust the Malfoys to do important tasks when they fail at absolutely everything he asks them to do? And boy, is he not big on the details. If he’d let Bellatrix kill Harry Potter when she had the chance he’d totally have won (that prophecy was suitably vague). Harry is aware that he’s a stubborn and irrational idiot sometimes, and so bows to Hermione’s clearly superior judgement, which is why Harry wins. Oh sure, people may tell him it’s to do with love in his skin or something, but mainly it’s because he listens to his genius friend who has saved his life basically every week for seven years.
There are faults with this film, certainly. The ‘Not my daughter you bitch’ scene is fumbled, sending Slytherin to the dungeons further compounds the ‘THEN WHY THE HELL DO YOU HAVE AN EVIL HOUSE?’ issue, Ron and Hermione are given just enough screen time to placate the shippers, and there’s still a rush of plot to register before the battle, but when it kicks in it absolutely nails Harry’s story, so much so that it’s easy to forgive the overlooked subplots.
Plus, unlike certain other Fantasy film series, it just ends. Sure, it ends on a shot involving Ron looking like a sly midnight garage creeper, but at least it doesn’t hang around.
Unlike Ron. After dark.
1. Harry Potter And The Order of the Phoenix
Despite the jarring sound of The Ordinary Boys in the Gryffindor common room, once this film arrives in Hogwarts it balances its two conflicting tones better than any other movie in the story. Its silliness is shot through with a serious undercurrent: there’s a war coming, and civic freedoms are being oppressed.
The book is the longest in the series, the film is the second shortest (after Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2), and thanks to Daniel Radcliffe’s performance (underplaying it except for a few bursts of anger) it avoids the pitfalls of the novel and brings Harry’s anger into focus without making him too unlikeable. Rupert Grint, after sterling work in the last two films, has presumably handed over the acting juice for this one.
Once it has dispensed with the inevitable wizardly eccentricities, the film nails its tone upon arrival in the Ministry of Magic. The plot is shorn of mystery elements and is driven more by Harry’s fear and anger, with the politically charged subtext present but not overwhelming. Even in the colourful Christmas celebration scenes, they’re toasting an awkward Harry for saving someone’s life via his connection to Voldemort. Then there’s Dolores Umbridge, who’s just loathsome. Imelda Staunton makes sure she gets right under the skin just by laughing.
The finale is an excellent combination of spectacle, character and theme, with the fight between Voldemort and Dumbledore surprisingly tense for a 12A bloodless CG fest. This is also the last time Voldemort appears truly threatening, leering into shot suddenly and only counteracted by Dumbledore going into badass mode. It raises the stakes and lays further foundations for the next film, tells a great story in its own right, and has a satisfying emotional wallop at the end.