Date: February 20 2021
Disclaimer – this is a re-watch review and thus is full of spoilers. This is not a review for someone who hasn’t seen the films.
Re-watching old films has become a bit of a habit for me in lockdown. I started way back in May with a full re-watch of all 6 Tolkien films. Since then they’ve become incredibly compulsive viewing for good reason. Going back and visiting an old series of films is a huge pleasure and often gives you a new perspective on the films you loved watching the first time in the cinema. Does the CGI translate well to the small screen? Are the jokes still as funny? Do they still make you cry? And overall, have they aged well?
I struggle to think back to a time when Harry Potter wasn’t a part of my life. I do however remember a time when he wasn’t the worldwide phenomenon he now is. At the age of 10 I recall dressing up as Harry Potter for world book day, and whilst several of my friends who also enjoyed the books thought the costume was great, none of my teachers recognized who I was meant to be. Can you imagine? Glasses. Lightning shaped scar. Cloak. Wand. And nobody knew who I was!
Fast forward 20 odd years later and the most successful children’s books ever are also equally as famous for their movie adaptation success. I remember being both ridiculously excited and incredibly concerned when they announced a film series. You always love to see your favourite books brought to the big screen but will they do them justice? You want ‘The Lord of the Rings’ but you’re afraid of getting ‘The Dark Tower’.
So coming into this particular re-watch, I was fascinated to see if these films stood the test of time and if they didn’t, why not? What had aged well and what hadn’t. Similar to some of my other re-watches I decided to watch them all in order and then rank them in order of preference. I will try my utmost to divorce these films from the books, as it is often not fair to judge a film on the merits of the source material. However the odd comment about the nature of the adaptation may slip in from time to time.
8. HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (2005)
Directed by Mike Newell, the fourth film in the franchise comes slap bang in the middle of the series and sees Harry take on the infamous Tri Wizard tournament whilst also having to contend with the possibility that the dark lord Voldemort has returned to the wizarding world.
I’ll preface this by saying that I don’t think there are any bad films in this series. All of these films are incredibly enjoyable and entertaining. Having said that, for me this is definitely the low point in the series. Newell’s solo outing as director does feel like a deliberate change of direction to the previous three. This was the first film that didn’t involve Chris Colombus in any way (having directed the first two outings and stayed on as executive producer for the third) and I think it shows. It doesn’t have the magical charm of the first two nor the edginess of the third. All the departures, however small feel slightly off kilter and out of place. From the Beatles-esque haircuts of Harry and Ron to the costume design of the Death Eaters which whilst clearly referencing the KKK, feels very heavy handed. Even Patrick Doyle’s score, whilst perfectly fine in itself, feels weak and lacking the emotion and impact of John William’s previous three outings at the musical helm.
In it’s defense the plot zips along quickly enough but this film more than ever is groaning under the sheer tonnage of exposition the script has to inflict on the audience in order to understand this distinctly plotty film.
However I will always love this film for two things if nothing else. Goblet of Fire introduced us to Brendan Gleeson’s portrayal of Mad Eye Moody – the latest in the line of such incredible casting in these films.
This also features one of the all time great Alan Rickman moments, as the frustrated potions master Snape fails to hide his frustration and Harry and Ron talking whilst doing homework. The tugging of the sleeves was actually an ad-lib from Rickman and completely makes the scene.
7. HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002)
The second of Chris Columbus’ outings as director, and indeed the second film in the series sees Harry attempt to solve the mystery of the Chamber of Secrets and it’s monster that lies within.
This film absolutely picks up where the previous one left off. It still has Colombus’ magical touch, still has William’s enchanting score, and still feels completely and utterly Harry Potter. The cast as usual are on great form. All the previous cast return and are equally as entertaining as they were in the first outing. This film also introduces Ken Brannargh’s superbly smooth yet supremely incompetent Professor Lockhart and is a joy to watch in every scene.
Why then I hear you ask does it occupy such a low place in the rankings? Basically due to it’s rather sedentary plot.
The storylines in Harry Potter whilst often compelling, usually follow a predictable formula;
- Harry gets himself into trouble in the holidays
- He goes back to Hogwarts where there is some sort of dangerous mystery
- He, Ron and Hermione try to work out what the dangerous mystery might be
- In between solving said mystery, Harry plays some Quidditch, Hermione reads some books, Ron has a sulk
- The dangerous mystery is revealed to have something to do with Voldemort and usually tries to kill Harry
- Harry survives
And whilst Chamber of Secrets does indeed follow this particular formula, its such a straightforward ‘monster trying to kill people’ scenario, it falls oddly flat. That combined with a distinctly creepy almost horror like feel to the way the camera follows the action results in a tonally very mixed experience. And after such a triumphant first outing, I think this falls more under the category of a disappointment than a poor film outright.
6. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1 (2010)
The seventh film in the series and David Yates’ third as director sees the finale of Harry’s story begin to unfold as he attempts to find the last of Voldemort’s Horcruxes. Or as I dubbed it “Harry Goes Camping”
So lets get this out the way to begin with. Both this and part two are fundamentally flawed as they are one narrative split in two and therefore both feel slightly unsatisfying. Having taken the decision to split the last book of the series into two films, Warner Bros and Yates actually ended up setting a trend for many movie adaptations of a similar ilk. The same blueprint followed for the Hunger Games films, the Twilight saga, and even the ill fated Divergent series – despite the fact that Allegiant Part II never actually made it to our screens. Even Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit followed suit in concluding his series of films with one huge battle set piece which inevitably encompasses most of the latter film.
That does mean unfortunately that the first films in these two partners are often left with too much exposition and not enough action to balance it out. It feels like it’s setting up a lot of plot points and anticipation for something we know we aren’t going to see until the next film. This is absolutely the case here and whilst there is a lot of like about this film (Alexandre Desplat’s score is remarkable) it does feel distinctly unsatisfying when we reach the conclusion and our protagonists seemed to have accomplished very little.
Having said that, there are many things this film does get right. The depiction of a totalitarian Ministry of Magic full of prejudice and bigotry is dealt with very well, even if the imagery of all of the ministry workers dressed effectively as Nazi Stormtroopers was a little on the nose. And Dobby’s death still draws a tear and one of the biggest emotional gut punches of the whole series.
But in contrast this film has two of the worst sequences to grace the Harry Potter big screen, both of which involve Harry and Hermione. Whilst the dancing scene between the two friends is crushingly awkward and has nowhere near the sweetness and charm it intends, the half naked image of the two indulging in what can only be described as face eating presented to Ron, is both harsh and unnecessary.
5. HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE (2009)
The sixth entry in the series sees David Yates return for a second time in the director’s chair and tells the story of a wizarding world preparing for Voldemort’s return to power as Harry learns of Horcuxes and has to deal with the demise of his mentor Albus Dumbledore.
I have to be honest, coming into this re-watch I assumed this film would be stone cold bottom of the list. On paper it doesn’t seem to have a lot going for it. The plot meanders horribly from different memories of Voldemort’s past to the not very interesting mystery of the identity of the ‘Half Blood Prince’ of the title. Not a lot happens and we have to wait until the very end to see any real plot development when we get a hugely enjoyable set piece involving Dumbledore and Harry before the former’s death at the hands of Severus Snape.
Yet I found this a surprisingly enjoyable re-watch, mainly due to just how funny it is. It made me laugh all the way through. By this point the once child, now definitely teenage actors are clearly so comfortable with these characters that they have the confidence to play and try some new things. The comic timing from all involved is really top draw. The most memorable of these for me is Harry’s experience with Felix Felicitus where Radcliffe takes the choice to act as though Harry is somewhat high to hilarious comedic effect. Also Dumebledore’s death is dealt with really well and is accompanied beautifully by Nicholas Hooper’s score.
4. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2 (2011)
The final film in the franchise sees Yates take on Harry Potter for the last time (Fantastic Beasts films not withstanding) as we follow the Battle of Hogwarts and see Harry face Voldemort in a final confrontation.
I’ve already talked about the inherent problems with both Parts I and II of Deathly Hallows. And where the first part lacks big set pieces, that’s really all the one consists of. We quickly move from Gringotts to Hogwarts where the extended battle sequence occupies most of the film. And other than the gut wrenchingly emotional flashback to Snape’s youth through the penseive, we don’t really get much chance to breath.
However what it lacks in plot development, it more than makes up for in spectacle. The CGI of the whole battle sequence still holds up today and Alexandre Desplats score still give me goosebumps. The audience is made to feel the sheer number of major character deaths, even the ones that happen off screen such as Lupin, Tonks and of course Fred Weasley. As I’ve already said, this set the blueprint up for big finale film battles and few that come after manage to match up to the incredible display we are given here.
Unfortunately the film does end on an odd tone with the very forced and superciliously twee epilogue. This does exist in the book though and I think it would be difficult to adapt the film without it. Personally I would preferred it to end with simply the three protagonists in the ruins of Hogwarts together. But that’s just me.
3. HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE (2001)
The first outing sees Chris Colombus bring the initial story by JK Rowling to the big screen where we see a young boy Harry Potter learn he is not only a wizard but one who has a mortal enemy in the evil wizard Voldemort.
This film holds a very special place in my heart and every film that comes after this one in the whole franchise owes Philosopher’s Stone (Or Sorcerer’s stone if you’re American and can’t understand what a Philosopher is) a huge debt. Because to employ an overused cliché, this walked so the other films could run. Much like Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings, brining Harry Potter to the bring screen was both hugely ambitious and a massive gamble. If this hadn’t have done right, if the casting had been off or the script had ventured too far away from the source material or even the set and costume designs had tried to do something different, this would have been a disaster. And this manages to pull them all off. Colombus’ vision of Hogwarts beautifully encapsulates the world Rowling created and brings it perfectly to life.
But more than anything this film cast the majority of actors that would commit to an eight film run. And in my eyes if gets virtually all of them spot on. I could wax lyrical about the incredible acting talent on display here for hours on end. Greats such as Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and Robbie Coltrane become permanent features and get their characterizations absolutely perfect. It also introduced us to a generation of young actors most of whom have now gone on to be household names.
The only reason it occupies third place is simply because the two ahead of it take a few more risks and probably have slightly more interesting subject matter. However I am truly nitpicking at this stage.
2. HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007)
David Yate’s initial outing as director sees Harry deal with the aftermath of Voldemort’s return to power and the difficulties he faces convincing the wider wizarding world that the worst has happened.
For me, everything that Mike Newell failed at with Goblet of Fire, David Yates gets right here. This brings a new sense of visual style to the series that sees it through to it’s conclusion. Harry Potter is rife with metaphors and relevance to the modern world we live in, but here they are probably at their most blunt. Having been a teacher myself, I can fully recognize Rowling’s clear frustration with the likes of OFSTED telling teachers how to do their job, not so subtly disguised in the figure of Dolores Umbridge superbly portrayed by Immelda Staunton. You instantly despise the character as soon as you hear the first stifled ‘hem hem’ cough and don’t stop hating her until she is unceremoniously carried off by a herd of rampaging centaurs, prompting a genuine fist bump from myself watching it for what feels like the thousandth time.
The plot moves along very quickly and unlike Half Blood Prince which really makes a meal of the story, Order of the Phoenix manages to keep you interested throughout as we genuinely don’t understand what’s happening to Harry and intentionally keeps you on edge right up to it’s crushing finale seeing the death of Sirius Black. This also introduces another master piece of casting in Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange, who gives a nice juxtaposition to Stuanton’s Umbridge. Both on opposing sides but equally as vile.
Yates also bring Nicholas Hooper into the fold as composer and adds some magic (honestly the last time I use that word, promise) to the score that had been lacking since John William’s departure. The broomstick ride along the Thames and the Weasley’s departure from Hogwarts are great set pieces suitably accompanied by a rousing score.
1. HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004)
The third film in the franchise and the solo outing for director Alfonso Currón tells of Harry’s dealing with Sirius Black, friend of Harry’s Parents who has broken out of the wizard prison of Azkaban.
Up front I will say I’m a huge fan of the character of Sirius Black and therefore it is no surprise that the two films where he is most heavily featured come top of my list. The tortured anti-hero is superbly portrayed in both this film and the Order of the Phoenix by Gary Oldman who effortlessly gets across the idea of a man forced to be punished for something he didn’t do.
Admittedly the third outing has some of the best source material to work from in that Prisoner of Azkaban is arguably the best book (ironically it is the one story that doesn’t actually feature Voldemort and in some ways is all the better for it). As usual the casting is on top form introducing not only Oldman’s Black but also David Thewlis as Lupin, Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney and Timothy Spall as Wormtongue. Superb actors all in their own right, clearly having the time of their lives here.
What sets this apart for me though is the whole feel of the film. Currón obviously drawing on his more horror based background gives us a chilling introduction to the dementors and whilst they are suitably horrible in the latter films, we never quite feel that literal chill down the back of our spines we do the first time they appear aboard the Hogwarts Express. Also as a huge science fiction fan, anything involving time travel will always keep be interested, and the time turner sequence towards the end it dealt with very well.
It’s not perfect mind. The final shot of the film has a frozen warped image of Harry’s face as he rides his firebolt for the first time plastered over the screen in one of the oddest endings to a film in recent memory. And once again the sheer amount of exposition that has to be included in the finale means Oldman, Thewlis and Spall are having to race through dialogue in order to explain how everything fits together and at times seem like they’re having a competition to see who can say their lines fastest.
However despite those minor flaws, Currón manages to balance that bitter sweet ending of Sirius’ escape and the true sense of wonder we feel at the magic of Hogwarts into a truly thrilling movie. This atmosphere combined the last of William’s outings as composer and a child cast really starting to find their feet and confidence, for me makes this the most enjoyable outing.
So, how to sum up my rewatch. As I said earlier, Harry Potter has always been close to my heart. And as much as I adore the books, I don’t think this world would have been as big a part of my life as it is, without these films. Yes there are flaws and if I’m being honest, strictly speaking there are probably more faithful adaptations of books out there. But the sheer scale and imagination involved in bringing these to the big screen meant adapting JK Rowling’s world was always a herculean task.
And by and large these films get so much right. Each score is brilliant in it’s own way, the costume and set designs instantly immerse you in this wizarding fantasy and you will be hard pushed to find a better casting over a series of eight films.
All in all, the world is a better place with these films in them, and even though certain films had their faults, I consider not a single moment of my rewatch, a wasted one.