“I love magic,” Harry Potter says as he stares in amazement at how the power of magic can turn this little tent into this accommodating big top. Truly, the cinematic depiction of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World is something to behold, not solely for its epic adventures and enthralling world-building but also for what lies within – the emotional sincerity in character introspection.
The Harry Potter film series is definitely a unique series in that it introduces our main characters as they’re in their prepubescent childhood stage and ends their stories as they reach adulthood. This makes the film series stand out; as each film has a greater opportunity for more thoughtful and interesting character development than the last, as well as a greater opportunity for more thoughtful and interesting filmmaking. It’s difficult for a series of eight films to switch up the approach every now and again to express something different while still adhering to the established mood of the franchise, but it’s also important that a multi-billion dollar franchise respect the craft of filmmaking to that degree, and the Harry Potter series succeeds at doing so.
8. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The first film in the Harry Potter series, beloved as it is, is definitely the weakest entry. Sure, it introduces all the lovable characters, the magical school of Hogwarts, and the whimsical aspects of lore that have their individual moments of pay-off in a couple of the later films. However, it’s world-building without the heart.
It’s charming and the lore and backstory of the world are admittedly interesting, but what’s evidently lacking in the film is a focus on character and conflict. Harry Potter finding a home in Hogwarts, after feeling a disconnect in the family for years, sounds good on paper, but the themes and ideas never feel expressed in the film. Also, the conflict never feels present until the climax of the film, and with a two and half our runtime, it really makes the film hard to watch in one sitting.
7. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Goblet of Fire, which follows the character-centric Prisoner of Azkaban in the series, feels like back-peddling towards the couple earlier films in the series, with its focus on adventures and world-building. The film definitely is more focused on plot than development of its characters, which makes it a jarring switch on the approach exhibited in Prisoner of Azkaban. Granted, the plot of the Tri-Wizard Tournament and all the traditions that come with it is compelling to watch, and it is the first time the grand stakes of the series feel real (thanks to the exciting challenges and the amazing re-introduction to Lord Voldemort). The film just never seems to do anything with its multiple plot lines. It’s a disjointed narrative that is momentarily given energy when the games start. It’s pretty much The Hunger Games of Harry Potter films.
6. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
This is definitely the superior film when it comes to the more child-friendly Harry Potter films. It has an actually exciting finale and a compelling mystery driving it. These two aspects are relevant to the plot and the internal conflicts of the character, which makes the film stand on its own, with revelations in later installments only serving to strengthen its place in the series. While the film still lacks a particular focus and vision in order to evoke feelings for the characters, it manages, for the most part, to establish that Potter and friends are characters worth being interested in and falling in love with.
5. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Easily the most visually stunning of the Harry Potter films, Half-Blood Prince is the Harry Potter film I want to really love, but can’t. There were a lot of really good narrative threads to use in this film. With Snape apparently being a Death Eater, Malfoy being a reluctant assassin, the new Potions professor, the exploration of Tom Riddle’s past, Dumbledore’s secret quest, and the idea of there being an unintentionally shared bond between Voldemort and Harry (this idea was introduced in the previous film), there could have been a real focus on the moral ambiguity of the situation – on how things aren’t as black and white as they seem. This would’ve complemented the overall grey look of the film, as well. However, the filmmakers never find a way to thematically tie together all the plot lines of the film. They have the means to connect these stories thematically but they instead choose to focus on the love lives of the characters, so it kind of comes off as flat and disjointed, but there are a lot of good ideas to be found in this movie.
4. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Order of the Phoenix is the first of Director David Yates’ four Wizarding World films (soon to be nine), and in it, he proves to be a rightful successor to the work done by Director Alfonso Cuarón in Prisoner of Azkaban. This film is definitely cut from the same cloth as Prisoner of Azkaban, with its emphasis on character introspection over plot and its consistency in use of stylistic motifs. While Yates’ directing isn’t as refined as Cuarón’s in his debut Potter film, it’s still superior to about half the other films in the series.
Yates recognizes Cuarón’s approach to the Harry Potter films, as it’s pretty evident he tries to carry out the same level of tribute to character and filmmaking. So much so that Order of the Phoenix even continues a few narrative threads introduced in Prisoner of Azkaban, like answering the question of whether or not Potter should be kept isolated/face the burden of Voldemort alone. Order of the Phoenix simply makes the statement that while Harry Potter is the Chosen One, he’ll never be alone. And that’s why he’ll win.
3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2
The final installment in the Harry Potter series plays out like your usual series finale. The climax hits hard, emotionally, and every moment in the finale focused on individual character beats resonates as much as it is intended to. The film never misses a moment to focus on character and it never fails to make that moment as satisfying as possible. From a minor character like Neville destroying the final Hocrux to the apparently-antagonistic character Snape revealing he has made great sacrifices all for the love for main protagonist’s mother, these moments are not only thematically relevant to the film itself but they also serve as satisfying final moments with characters we’ve spent eight films with. In short, the culmination of the Harry Potter series just does not let up.
The feeling of triumph lends itself to spiritual guidance as well. Death looms over Hogwarts but love shall always be a transcendental force that should give power and courage to those willing to live by it. In the end, it shows Harry Potter as the master of Death, not because of the power he wields but because of the character he possesses.
2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1
A strong and unique installment in the Harry Potter series, Deathly Hallows – Part 1 is a dangerous adventure film for children who shouldn’t be away from school.
The opening moments of the film focusing on the three main characters give us an idea of what to expect from the penultimate installment – isolation, fear and loss. The film delivers in that regard, with David Yates’ excellent direction (arguably his best of the series) really evoking the same feelings of desperation and failure. Every moment in the film captures those emotions perfectly. Every throwback or reference to earlier instalments is a depressing reminder of how our main characters are just kids, totally unprepared to be the only chance the Wizarding World has.
The film does an equally impressive job of establishing Voldemort as a force of evil without a lot of screen time given to Ralph Fiennes. Like Lord of the Rings, it depicts how easily vulnerable to corruption everything is – and that kind of power signifies true evil. The film shows how easily institutions and people can be infected with fear and hatred, but also how one may find guidance if he/she simply turns on the light.
1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
While there is some argument to made about which Harry Potter film is the “best,” it is pretty much incontestable that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of the Azkaban is definitely the most important Harry Potter film. It is as much a learning and growing experience for Harry Potter as it is for the audience. Moving away from the fun, kid-friendly fantasy depicted in the first two films, Prisoner of Azkaban delves into character and theme exploration in a very thoughtful way. This is thanks to Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful approach to the Wizarding World. In what is a simple story of a crazy murderer escaping wizard prison, Cuarón manages to explore Harry Potter’s feelings of loneliness and to make the same feelings felt by the audience as well. He also manages to set up themes and ideas that are explored in later films all through his use of visuals. This is achieved through simple camera movements; sweeping shots covering the premises of the campus, shots that pass through objects, and even simple blocking. This emotional sincerity conveyed through a consistent use of motifs is an aspect that not only makes the Prisoner of Azkaban an ideal Harry Potter film but it’s also what make the Harry Potter films magical in the first place. It brings to life the words of J.K. Rowling through a tangible magic – the magic of cinema.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures