Harry Potter isn’t just a franchise. It’s an empire of author JK Rowling’s creation, where books, films, theme park rides, and online communities have sprung out of one woman’s imagination. It’s an ever-growing one, too, with the Fantastic Beasts series bringing five more adventures to screen, all a world away from lives of Harry, Hermione, and Ron. Here are all the cinematic entries of the Wizarding World to date, ranked from worst to best.
10. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
JK Rowling gifted herself a whole new world to explore with the Fantastic Beasts franchise, with five films to dial back and explore the Wizarding World as it stood in the early 20th century. While the first, and far superior entry, took place in New York, The Crimes of Grindelwald shifts the action to Paris.
And, for the majority of the film, it continues in the spirit of originality and creativity, with new beasts for Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) to tame and magical delights to be uncovered. All this good will is swiftly undone, however, in the film’s closing chapter. What follows is a baffling series of expositional conversations and meaningless connections, dragging The Crimes of Grindelwald down into the murky depths occupied by the Star Wars prequels.
9. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The Harry Potter franchise’s greatest weakness, perhaps, was its need to mature at the same pace as its audience. And as that audience plunged into awkward adolescence, so too did the movies. The Order of the Phoenix may have its ardent supporters, but the film remains the lowest rated by critics (with 77 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes), as it most acutely represents the lag between the franchise’s bright-eyed, whimsical beginnings and the epic weight of its conclusion.
However, this is largely due to the fact that director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, both newcomers to the franchise, made the attempt to adapt the longest Potter book into the shortest Potter film.
The result made the rush to maturity look all the more thorny. Dudley Dursley (Harry Melling) is suddenly transformed into a chain-wearing thug, while the plot works overtime to sidetrack Harry (Daniel Radcliffe)’s inevitable confrontation with Voldemort with a handy political metaphor.
Here, the return of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is stubbornly denied by a now-corrupted Ministry of Magic, who send Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) to turn Hogwarts into a mini-fascist dictatorship. And, despite Staunton’s unsettling work, there’s no room here to create depth beyond acknowledging the parallels. The Order of the Phoenix may be dark and moody, but it lacks emotional complexity.
8. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I
Splitting the last Potter book into two films was, inevitably, the right decision in order to save audiences from a rushed conclusion to one of the most popular franchises ever. Yet The Deathly Hallows Part II could only shine if The Deathly Hallows Part I was willing to take the fall and act as pure set-up to its successor.
It’s arguably the most emotionally unsatisfying of the series, following Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) as they attempt to evade Voldemort’s clutches and destroy the Horcruxes, the artefacts containing the Dark Lord’s soul, the keys to his final destruction.
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The film trades on conflict between the trio, as Ron’s jealousy (as influenced by the locket) serves only to prefigure his eventual future with Hermione. Even the film’s animated history lesson isn’t enough to make this film memorable.
7. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The franchise’s second instalment certainly has its standout moments – it introduces both all-time legend Dobby into the game and lets Kenneth Branagh steals scene after scene as the vainglorious Gilderoy Lockhart. However, its bloated 161-minute runtime can make it tough work.
Director Chris Columbus returned with as much enthusiasm as he expressed in The Philosopher’s Stone, delivering thrills in Aragog, the basilisk, the petrifications, the Whomping Willow, and the Quidditch matches. That isn’t enough, regrettably, to fully distract from its rather dry narrative, which delivers endless plot twists about the dark history of Hogwarts and the truth behind Tom Riddle’s diary.
Another of the adolescent-stage films of the franchise, The Half-Blood Prince could just as easily have fallen prey to The Order of the Phoenix’s tonal awkwardness, but there’s a much keener sense of the wider stakes here – Severus Snape (Alan Rickman)’s machinations make for particularly gripping viewing, culminating in a face-off that still has the propensity to shock years later.
What’s crucial, however, is the sense of balance that’s also brought to this film, as the students of Hogwarts find moments for the old magic: a Butterbeer shared with friends, or a game of Quidditch. Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) provides a light sense of comic relief, alongside the now-infamous “Hermione’s got nice skin” moment between Ron and Harry.
In fact, the darkness of The Half-Blood Prince is more efficiently served in the film’s colour palette, relinquishing the need for too much angst from its characters, as cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel provides softer, murkier tones than seen before. Plus, the film’s narrative doesn’t feel stretched, even though it’s tasked with introducing the idea of horcruxes into the mix.
5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II
Director Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves faced the ultimate challenge with The Deathly Hallows Part II: to satisfactorily conclude a story 10 years in the making. Few would argue against their success, since the film is actually the highest rated of the entire Potter series (at 96 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes), although its reliance on narrative tricks and deceptions have made it slightly less appealing on repeated viewing.
That said, there are some bold creative decisions here that save The Deathly Hallows Part II from simply feeling like a procession of notable character deaths, including the decision to relegate some of those deaths to offscreen. It’s a film that knows how to manipulate its audience, but also knows when to show restraint.
4. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The Harry Potter series became the Wizarding World with the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a film that incites instant curiosity for its cinematic frontier: 1920s New York, divided between the slick Art Deco design of MACUSA, The Magical Congress of the United States of America, the smoke-filled speakeasies (complete with goblin jazz singers and bartenders), and the dark corners inhabited by the Second Salemer witch hunters.
In one film, screenwriter Rowling and director Yates were able to establish both a visual and thematic depth to their world that feels equal to the universe of Harry and his friends. Add to that, they found an empathetic protagonist in Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, a magical zoologist with a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
3. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
At this point, the Potter series was four films in, so a change of pace had become essential to the franchise’s survival. The Triwizard Tournament fulfilled that need magnificently, allowing the introduction of a more global perspective thanks to Fleur Delacour (Clémence Poésy) and Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski), alongside a neat sequence of set pieces, from deadly mermaids to dragons.
The Yule Ball also remains a visual delight. It’s an almost comically elegant backdrop for Ron, Harry, and Hermione’s youthful angst over dates and relationships. Add to that, the film boasts both Brendan Gleeson’s brilliant performance as Mad-Eye Moody and the film debut of Robert Pattinson, as Hufflepuff’s tragic hero Cedric Diggory.
2. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
“You’re a wizard, Harry.” And, with that, thousands of childhoods became instantly filled with wonder, never mind the looming disappointment of realising a letter from Hogwarts was never going to turn up in the post. As tempting as it may be to ridicule The Philosopher’s Stone for its badly aged special effects (poor Fluffy) and objectionable child acting, there is no replacing the magic conjured in our very first look at Hogwarts, a soft glow emanating from its many towers.
The film is a sugary sweet delight that rightly deserves its place as a modern children’s classic. It relishes in its air of joy and fantasy – and that cannot be underestimated, no matter how epic the series’ conclusion.
1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The franchise’s biggest risk is also its biggest triumph. As unexpected as the move may have been to hand the reins over to Alfonso Cuarón, fresh from his sensual coming-of-age tale Y Tu Mamá También, The Prisoner of Azkaban has become the ultimate Harry Potter movie. Cuarón could subtly warp the look and feel of this word to progress towards maturity, without disrupting what had been established in the first two films.
It’s the most successful in doing so of the entire series. The balance between light and dark provides risk without sacrificing enchantment. The Dementor is the most frightening creation of this universe, while the Patronus is the most beautiful.
And yet it’s still a film grounded in character, and Cuarón does not allow the pain haunting the likes of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) and Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) to be lost in the visual fray. This is a film that pulsates with a sense of loss, but not in the way more intensely felt later on in the series. Instead, screenwriter Kloves, drawing from Rowling’s themes, captures the great tragedy of time itself, and our ceaseless fight to keep hold of those things destined to slip out of our fingers.
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