There’s a new installment in the Wizarding World of J.K. Rowling, and there’s likely to be three more before the Fantastic Beasts series is all said and done. With that in mind, let’s take stock of our favorite witches and wizards and see which adventures rank as the best while others fail to board the Hogwarts Express.
9. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Fantastic Beasts is trying to do a lot of things. In fact, it’s trying to do way too much and ends up not accomplishing much at all. With the conclusion of the Potter saga, Warner Bros. needed a way to keep the “Wizarding World” alive for future box-office profits. Enter J.K. Rowling, writing an original screenplay, and David Yates, our most experienced Potter director. Sounds like a perfect fit. Unfortunately this movie has a great deal of franchise envy and it appears that was the only goal here, rather than telling a good story in its own right because I honestly couldn’t even tell you what the story is. Newt Scavander is an intriguing but impenetrable character. We don’t learn his purpose or what’s driving him until we’re already an hour in. In contrast, we knew right away who Harry Potter was, his place in the world, and what his desires were. It was easily communicable and allowed us to go along for the ride rather than trying to piece every plot nugget and kernel of character information into something sensical. While I hope this does set the stage for strong future Fantastic Beast stories, the first installment lacks the drive, focus, and (dare I say) magic of its predecessors.
8. The Chamber of Secrets
Chamber of Secrets is pretty impressive when you consider it began production the day after the first film released and was turned around in just a single year. Thankfully Warner Bros. learned their lesson and gave the succeeding installments a larger window of 18 months so these films could get the attention they deserve. The second film in the Harry Potter franchise is largely successful (spoiler alert: none of these are necessarily “bad” movies) in that it gives a much more focused, pro-active story that expands the Wizarding World and is more engaging at times than its predecessor. The trio have grown nicely into their roles, but with the exception of Watson, you can start to see the strain of skills on performance. Where Chamber of Secrets falters is that our heroes, while still acting heroically, don’t directly influence the course of events. The climax is a series of deus ex machina’s (Faux, Hermoine figuring everything out off-screen, the sorting hat, the sword, Faux again) which are then clumsily explained to us afterward.
7. The Order of the Phoenix
In the wake of the events of the Goblet of Fire, Harry finds himself quite frustrated and we do too. Nobody believes him that Voldermort is back and the Ministry of Magic is silencing anyone who says otherwise. While the novel appropriately tackles the numerous reactions to Voldermort’s return with aplomb, and the film is well-done in its moment to moment storytelling, it can’t help but feel like it’s just spinning its wheels. While the finale is thrilling and ranks among the best of all 8 films, everything preceding lacks a central, driving narrative force. You could make a case for Umbridge’s takeover of Hogwarts, and while Imelda Staunton is absolutely terrific in the role, that story really has little to do with Voldermort himself – our villain. We also have Harry and his Occlumency lessons but that’s barely two scenes. The Dumbledore’s Army sequences are a highlight but exist apart from everything else. That’s not to say each and every one of these storylines are not well done, they are great in and of themselves, but there lacks a focus to bring it all together. David Yates, who will be the director from here on out, does a workman-like job and delivers the spectacle when called upon but doesn’t bring anything fresh to the table. Yates, though, will quickly finds his footing with Half-Blood Prince.
6. The Sorcerer’s Stone
The launchpad of the franchise, Sorcerer’s Stone sets out to accomplish very specific things: be a wondrous and whimsical, family-friendly kids movie that adheres faithfully to its overly-beloved source material. At times episodic, but always charming, the film is quite successful and is genuinely one of the best kids movies ever made since its release back in 2001. The impressive adult ensemble is given all of the heavy lifting while the younger cast is allowed to enjoy experiencing this new world, none given material that outreaches their grasp for this first installment. While Sorcerer’s Stone follows the book close enough to a fault, Columbus does capture the magic of introducing this impressive world to us and proved to be the right man for the job. Spell classes, Quidditch matches, and larger-than-life chess games are the stuff of childhood dreams and it’s hard to find a false or bad note anywhere. Although the series would soon outgrow his sensibilities, Columbus does deserve a great deal of credit for starting the series off on the right foot.
5. The Deathly Hallows: Part 1
This is a difficult film to judge. On one-hand, it represents only a part of a grander story, though on the other, it is trying to be a single film unto itself and that is how it must be judged from a filmmaking perspective. Part 1 is not only epic in its own right, but gorgeously shot, and the most assured we’ve ever seen David Yates behind the camera (he’s had plenty of practice on this series by now). No longer are our characters scrambling around Hogwarts, trying to make sense of what little crumbs of intel they can discern from the adults. Now they are all they’ve got, and they only know as much as they can discover on their own. School is over, it’s time for the real world, and you have no safety net. By staying exclusively with the trio throughout the film, we are fully immersed in their POV where dread, paranoia, and depression run rampant. We push these characters to their emotional breaking points. The decision to split this movie into two is still controversial (even moreso for the trend it created for prolonging other franchises), but it does allow this part of the story a lot of room to breathe so we can focus on these emotional journeys. The wonderful (yet fleeting) scene of Harry and Hermoine dancing alone to the radio, ends up being one of the most poignant moments in the whole series. Unfortunately it still feels like a story that just stops. We check our watches and realize we’re out of time for this episode. Though the filmmakers do their best to make the sequence at Malfoy Manor the “third act” set-piece, it is underwhelming at best and Dobby’s death, though tragic, is a rather weak emotional beat to end on.
4. The Half-Blood Prince
Whereas Order of the Phoenix spent its time grasping at as many narrative threads as it could, Half-Blood Prince has no such issues and gets right down to business. Our penultimate chapter, storywise at least, is one of the most confident and purposeful films in the entire series. Here our heroes finally take the first steps in defeating Voldermort while their enemies plot to strike from within. Given that this is the calm right before the saga’s grand final movement, it does a deft job at pushing our characters’ relationships more than we ever have. The film very much is the quintessential Class of Hogwarts movie. We bring all of our angst-ridden adolescent threads to a close, in wonderfully entertaining ways. The Potter series has never been funnier than it is here — Daniel Radcliffe’s performance while on the “liquid luck” is tremendous. The growth of the younger cast must be noted as well. Each player, even beyond the main trio, have fully grown into their parts and can play them with ease. You don’t see the acting. The world has become fully-inhabited thanks to the years of familiarity. Yates ups the visual panache with a very striking and boundary-pushing color palette and infuses the story with both sweet charm and palpable, mounting dread. It’s an impressive final breath before the storm.
3. The Goblet of Fire
Once Alfonso Curaon worked his own visionary brand of magic on The Prisoner of Azkaban, the series’ apparent new directive was to maintain and eventually grow upon what Cuaron had established. The Goblet of Fire, the most essential chapter in our saga, is an epic novel that translates to a suitably epic film. While the film simplifies and glosses over many plot elements from the books — there’s no possible way of fitting everything; it’s a gigantic story — it does offer some of the most dazzling (and at times moving) set-pieces of the entire series: The Dragon Chase, The Black Lake, Voldermort’s Return. This is also the point in which the film series gains self-awareness, looking back on events of previous films and brimming with nostalgia on how our young cast is growing up before our eyes. That idea is nicely built into the film’s most successful sub-plot, The Yule Ball and co-operation with the other magic schools. It brings this ever expanding universe together in a way that allows even the most background of characters to grow. Goblet of Fire signals the series’ shift toward an appropriately larger focus on teen angst and brewing romanticism that not only contrasts well against the larger-than-life stakes, but also gives the film a strong sense of vitalness. It leaves you shaken, breathless, and changed in a way none of the other films offer.
2. The Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Part 2 of our final chapter picks up right where Part 1 left off and it’s as if we never left. We’re thrown right back into the fire. Had the filmmakers found a way to keep this all one movie, it may have a case for being the best of the bunch, but we can’t help but shake the feeling that we’re being dropped into the middle of a story. While the Gringotts sequence is fun, it feels like a moment leftover from Part 1. We don’t really get moving until the moment Harry arrives back at Hogwarts and then it’s a freight train powering relentlessly towards our finale. Deathly Hallows is filled to the brim with moments that will give you goosebumps, swell your eyes with tears, and leave you awestruck. The Battle of Hogwarts is a spectacular achievement that never loses sight of the emotional journey of our characters (even our side characters!) and is one of the best set-pieces ever conceived in fantasy cinema. All of that deft character work we did in Half-Blood Prince pays itself off as Harry is reunited and protected by his classmates from Voldermort’s grasp. Though the entire cast is tremendous, and everyone is given their moment to shine, Daniel Radcliffe deserves a great deal of credit for how much he carries this installment. His journey from plucky child star to fully formed adult hero is one of the most impressive journeys we’ve seen come out of Hollywood. While we could discuss endlessly all of the brilliant moments, technical wizardry, and powerful performances in this movie (special attention must be paid to the late, great Alan Rickman), we must suffice to say that it sticks the landing as best as any final movie could and sends the series off on a towering, moving, and triumphant note.
1. The Prisoner of Azkaban
The turning point of the franchise. Whereas the first two films provided enjoyable family-friendly escapism aimed at pleasing book fans, director Alfonso Cuaron brought his visionary style and completely reinvented the tone, look, design, and dramatic depth of these movies. Hogwarts gets a much needed facelift that feels more like something out of a gothic fairytale than the bright, vibrant world of Christopher Columbus. Azkaban marks both a dramatic shift for the series but also the point where our main, over-arching narrative begins to finally take shape. It’s the most complete film, standing on its own more than any other, and tests our characters’ emotional strengths more than ever before. Azkaban represents series-highs for not just visual style, but the last truly great John Williams score, and some of the most inspired sequences (The Night Bus, Buckbeak’s Flight, The Patronus) in any of the other films. Cuaron is able to mature his young cast and guide them along the right path so they can properly grow to where this series will take them. If Cuaron hadn’t been handed the reigns and given the room to assert his vision, it’s entirely possible this series would have burned itself out like the Narnia films. Fortunately for us, Cuaron reinvigorates the series in all the right ways, giving the rest of the films the roadmap forward on how to translate Rowling’s prose into cinematic, emotional storytelling. Whereas Sorcerer’s Stone was full of wide-eyed childlike wonder, Azkaban possesses real magic and ranks among the finest fantasy films ever made.