With movie theaters serving up the latest round of Wizarding World delights from J.K. Rowling in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” here are my rankings of the nine “Harry Potter” universe films so far (I’m considering “Deathly Hallows” to be one movie, not two). Starting from the weakest and working my way to the best, this is how I rank them. Lumos!
9. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001) – Rowling’s books came first, but when we picture “Potter” locations, clothing and items in our heads now – even when reading the novels – those images come from the work the designers did on this first film. The Quidditch match remains a special effects masterpiece all these years later, and Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) is a presence from the start. But something has to rank last, and it’s the first film because the adaptation is clunky at times and the kids’ acting skills are blatantly not in place yet. (Full review)
8. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (2005) – The fourth film is a relatively rote adaptation that fails to tease out the best aspects of the novel and emphasizes the worst. It can’t get away from the book’s formulaic structure wherein Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and other competitors face a series of tasks. Romance emerges into the saga at the visually resplendent Yule Ball, but the movie fails to fully tap into the emotions of Harry’s rejection by Cho (Katie Leung) and Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione’s (Emma Watson) constant dancing around each other. These things make everyone gloomy, and the plot’s march pushes aside the character lessons, making the movie feel even colder — which, granted, is appropriate considering the climactic return of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). (Full review)
7. “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002) – The second film is notably warmer than the first, as the story and characters flow better with the beautiful scenery. Harry, Ron and Hermione now seem like friends rather than three kids learning how to act. It’s a faithful adaptation, but it comes from a book where Rowling makes some unappealing decisions: The viewer isn’t given a fair chance to solve the mystery, and Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) is a plot point more than a character – something that will nag her throughout the saga, even as she becomes a love interest for Harry. (Full review)
6. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (2010-11) – Commercially, these are two movies, but artistically they must be considered as one lest I make obvious but valid observations like “Part 1 doesn’t have an ending” and “Part 2 doesn’t have a beginning.” Put together, this adaptation of the seventh and final “Potter” book is a grand opus. While it gives time to students such as Neville (Matthew Lewis) who remain at Hogwarts, it smartly focuses on the trekking Harry, Ron and Hermione, whose friendship is challenged but ultimately survives stronger than ever. That said, this 4.5-hour epic is often grim and downbeat, making a viewer feel every minute of the run time. (Full review)
5. “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” (2018) – Tasked with moving the story forward after the foundation was laid in the first “Beasts,” screenwriter Rowling struggles a bit. Similar to “Goblet of Fire,” the relentlessly marching plot and complex backstory details too often quell the momentum of things like Newt’s (Eddie Redmayne) romantic yarns. That said, there are more beastly delights to be had in 1920s Paris, from a Chinese tiger-dragon to a woman (Claudia Kim’s Nagini) who can morph into a snake (whether she wants to or not). The titular villain (Johnny Depp), meanwhile, strikes a nice balance: We hate that he is manipulating people to his side, but we can see how these people are drawn in by his pitch about living free and not being ashamed by their magic abilities. (Full review)
4. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (2016) – The source material isn’t a novel but rather an in-universe guide book of Wizarding World fauna. Appropriately, a lot of the film emphasizes these gentle creatures, from the gold-grubbing niffler to the massive erumpent, brought to life by wholly convincing modern CGI. Long-term, though, the most fantastic thing is that the socially challenged Newt is a wonderfully different leading man, and he forms a makeshift family with Tina (Katherine Waterston), Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Queenie (Alison Sudol). It’s also neat to venture beyond England to see how the Wizarding World works in the Big Apple in the 1920s. This is all set-up for a saga of five “Beasts” films, but it’s enjoyable set-up. (Full review)
3. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (2007) – The loaded fifth book would seem to be the hardest to adapt, but screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (filling in for regular Steve Kloves) and first-time (and now regular) Wizarding World director David Yates smartly pare it down into a tight romp, emphasizing the best parts (including crowd-pleasing one-liners like “Sorry, Professor, but I must not tell lies”). Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), the teacher we love to hate, and Luna (Evanna Lynch), the Ravenclaw we love to love, are standouts; the former isn’t as oppressive as in the book (but still plenty villainous) and the latter is even more delightful thanks to Lynch’s wispy turn. (Full review)
2. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004) – The third film, the first great “Harry Potter,” is a perfect match of material and auteur, as director Alfonso Cuaron emphasizes dementors, crows, storms, the execution of innocent Buckbeak and the torment of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) in the titular nightmare prison. At the same time, it peppers in hope: Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Lupin (David Thewlis) is like a father figure to Harry, who ultimately gains a connection with his late father, too. And Hermione shines in a crazy-but-brilliant final sequence where she and Harry make a short hop back in time to set things right. (Full review)
1. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (2009) – Everything clicks in the sixth movie. The love stories – which had been bungled in “Goblet of Fire” – are handled with aplomb as we feel the teens’ pain and happiness, but most of all the giggle-worthy humor that comes from awkward moments, British-tinged zingers and flat reactions. “Half-Blood Prince” gives us the most perfect portrayal of boarding-school life in the Wizarding World, but it balances that with the darker surrounding story thanks in part to its tan and brown palette. This subtly prepares us for the tragic conclusion of the story of Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, having taken over from Richard Harris in “Azkaban”), which steers us toward the grand finale. (Full review)
How would you rank the Wizarding World movies? Share your thoughts in the comment thread.