“You’re a wizard, Harry.”
I love Harry Potter. Just look at my bio at the bottom of this page.
But honestly, who doesn’t? In fact, people love it so much that they’ve taken the book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is literally just an 80-page list of different magical creatures, and turned it into a feature length film. So I thought what better way to prepare for the next outing into the magical world of Harry Potter than to take a look back at the films that introduced us to this world in the first place.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
“Dear Mr. Potter, we are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.”
– Harry Potter
Ah, where it all began. How innocent we all were.
Where to even start? After surviving an attack by a dark wizard that killed his parents as a baby, Harry Potter is brought to live with his aunt and uncle until a half-giant named Hagrid arrives to inform him that he is, in fact, a wizard. And through Harry’s eyes we are introduced to a sprawling world of magic, wizards, witches, wands, broomsticks, quidditch, spells, charms, potions, goblins, werewolves, trolls, dragons, lions and tigers and bears, oh my.
We are introduced to characters we love like Harry’s unfailing best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, to characters we love to hate like Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape. To all the iconic characters that round out the cast like Albus Dumbledore, Minerva McGonagall, Rubeus Hagrid, Fred and George Weasley, and the people’s hero, Neville Longbottom.
Harry learns the ins and outs of the wizarding world as he begins his first year of school at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He doesn’t learn anything practical like math or English, but he does learn how to make feathers float, so I guess that’s worth something.
He also has to stop the spectral remains of the evil Lord Voldemort from getting his hands on the Sorcerer’s Stone which would grant him life thereby allowing him to continue his reign of murderous terror. You know, typical school work.
Most studios at the time didn’t see the potential in the story and wanted to change things, move locations, consolidate the books into one film, all sorts of disastrous ideas that would have derailed the franchise before it even began. So I give all the credit in the world to Chris Columbus, whose dedication to being as true to the story as possible gave us a world with endless possibilities. He balanced the important elements of the book, like its strong characters and thorough history with a wondrous world brought to life before our very eyes.
From the impeccable casting of the three leads as well as Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, to the now iconic music of John Williams, to every other technical aspect that made the wizarding world of Harry Potter feel like not only a place that we believed, but a place wanted to visit and revisit time and time again.
I first saw the film when I was quite young and it started me on a journey that I’m still on.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
“Help shall always be given at Hogwarts, to those who ask for it.”
– Albus Dumbledore
Next up we find Harry returning to Hogwarts only to find that a giant snake is attacking the muggle-borns at the order of a book possessed by a piece of Voldemort’s spirit trapped from when he was a student at Hogwarts because Harry Potter can’t just have a normal year at school.
The film does introduce us to a few new characters like Mr. & Mrs. Weasley, who could not be more perfectly cast. Similar could be said for Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart, charming and egotistical celebrity author and new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts. He is so delightfully annoying – and Branagh does wonders – although I’m still curious as to how original choice Hugh Grant would have done in the role.
The film is well made and smoothly paced and explores some new mythology involving Voldemort and his past identity, laying some integral groundwork for films to come. But it definitely pales in comparison to the films that surround it.
On its own it’s still quite good, but following Sorcerer’s Stone it feels like it covers the same structural and even emotional beats. Rowling admitted to suffering writer’s block while writing the book, and that same feeling carries over to the film.
But it gave us Dobby, and everyone loves Dobby.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, when one only remembers to turn on the light.”
– Albus Dumbledore
Well, Harry’s a teenager now. And this year he has to deal with the escape of a notorious criminal named Sirius Black. He’s believed to have betrayed Harry’s parents on the night of their death before killing their best friend, has escaped the inescapable Azkaban prison, and may have infiltrated the impenetrable Hogwarts – because as we’ve seen, their security is really lax.
This is the film where things start to turn in a darker, more mature direction. The first two films had their share of intense, scary moments, but those were more about immediate threats like monsters and spirits. Now the films start to break down emotionally and thematically. Harry starts to question the truths that have been given to him, and his emotions start to get the better of him.
However he finds solace in Professor Remus Lupin, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and old friend of Harry’s parents. He helps him learn how to face his fears and his darkness, both literally and figuratively. Lupin brings a warmth and comfort to the film while also building upon the history of this ever expanding story.
Director Alfonso Cuarón takes over for Chris Columbus and delivers a new style and look of the films that, for the most part, carries over for the rest of the films. He approaches the darkness thoughtfully and delicately, and brings and artful touch to the otherwise fantastic world of Harry Potter, making it worth more than just another fantasy movie for kids.
This is serious cinema. This is, after all, the guy who made Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
“I’m going to kill you, Harry Potter. I’m going to destroy you. After tonight, no one will ever again question my power. After tonight, if they speak of you, they’ll only speak of how you begged for death. And how I, being a merciful Lord … obliged.”
Or Harry Potter and the Year of Bad Hair.
In Year 4, Hogwarts is host to the legendary Triwizard Tournament, wherein a champion who is at least 17 from three different schools will be chosen at random to represent their school in three dangerous tasks. However, when Harry’s name appears as the fourth champion – despite being only 14 – he is forced to compete alongside the other champions in the deadly games.
And also Voldemort comes back, so a bad year all around.
But by far the scariest thing Harry faces all year is the one thing all young men dread: asking a girl out. Gasp, I know. As part of the Triwizard tradition, a Yule Ball is held and each of the champions must bring a date. We see our three leads navigate awkward encounters, repressed feelings, jealousy and rejection all while dealing with the fact that Harry could be killed in any one of the deadly tasks.
Man, being a teenager is hard, guys.
These more grounded issues not only make them grow as characters as we explore new and emerging sides to them, but it also makes them painfully relatable. It makes it easier to identify with characters who otherwise spend their time fighting werewolves and killer trees.
That being said, this is probably my least favorite Harry Potter movie. Which is a real shame, because the book is really great.
OK, there’s no such thing as a bad Harry Potter, movie but this one definitely has some issues. This is the first time where we really feel the discrepancy between the length of the book versus the length of the film. Much is rushed over or cut completely, and it makes things have less weight than they should.
Plus, there was just something about the tone and the style that felt off.
However, the scene in the graveyard where Voldemort is brought back to full power is excellent. I saw the film in theaters a second time just for that scene. The casting of Ralph Fiennes as He Who Must Not Be Named was inspired.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
“We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”
– Sirius Black
In this film, we are introduced to a wizarding world that is in complete and total denial of Voldemort’s return. Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge has officially denounced the claims of his return, and as a result, has turned Harry into a liar and social pariah.
Harry has to deal with not only strangers in the wizarding world, but even his own friends turning against him. He begins to lose hope and his temper. He starts to succumb to the connection between himself and Voldemort, and questions his own morality. He becomes unsure if he’s even strong enough to continue fighting.
It’s a very serious film.
However, just when you thought things were bad, they get much, much worse. In order to keep an eye on and a certain level of control over Hogwarts, Fudge appoints Dolores Umbridge to serve as the school’s new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and enforcer of strict rules and propaganda. And believe me when I say that Umbridge is the most foul, vile, loathsome, repellant piece of s-
Sorry, I got a little carried away. Yeah, she’s awful. She’s about as awful as one can get without resorting to drowning puppies or something.
But a bright shining light in the middle of all of that is the wonderfully eccentric and exceedingly polite Luna Lovegood. She’s just the best.
The film, taken over by director David Yates – who helms the remaining films – is beautiful, introspective, heartbreaking, uplifting, and well-paced. Though this is the second shortest film and is based on the longest book, it manages to move along smoothly due to more focus on character and a crap ton of montages.
But any qualms one might have about storylines from the book being cut or condensed are quelled by the third act. The last 30 minutes involving Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Neville and Luna breaking into the Ministry of Magic contain some of the best action in the films. It’s almost perfect.
Plus we get the only showdown between Dumbledore and Voldemort, the two greatest wizards of all time. And believe me when I say it lives up to that hype.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
“Severus … please.”
– Albus Dumbledore
So, so many hormones.
Remember when I mentioned the awkward hormones in Goblet of Fire? Yeah, that’s like the whole movie this time. We seemingly spend most of the film watching different combinations of characters try and succeed, or try and fail to hook up.
You see, all sorts of girls are trying to hook up with Harry because he’s the “Chosen One.” But Harry likes Ginny, who’s dating Dean, which makes Ginny’s brother Ron uncomfortable. Meanwhile Ron thinks he likes Hermione and is jealous of Cormac McClaggen, who likes Hermione, who thinks she likes Ron and gets jealous when Lavender Brown starts dating Ron, all right here on ABC Family.
Meanwhile wizard Hitler is planning to murder spell everyone to death. But that’s not important.
There is a running storyline about Dumbledore teaching Harry about Tom Riddle aka Voldemort’s past and his use of horcruxes. Items that hold a piece of his should and that keep him alive should any one piece be destroyed. This becomes the most important storyline moving forward.
We see Harry and Dumbledore’s bond more front and centered than it’s been in previous films, with Dumbledore and Harry going on the film’s climactic adventure in lieu of Ron and Hermione as is typical. It makes it all the more heartbreaking when … well, never mind.
The film does continue down a relatively dark path and introduces us to key plotlines moving forward, but it does focus an awful lot on teen romance. That stuff is very important character-wise as I said earlier, but it would have been nice if it felt a little more balanced. Especially when Tom Felton is giving such a nuanced and tortured performance that perhaps didn’t get the attention it deserved.
However, nothing can take away from the small yet unbelievably moving scene between Harry and Hermione on the steps. Yeah, you know it. We’ve all been there.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010)
“Dobby has no master. Dobby is a free elf, and Dobby has come to save Harry Potter and his friends!”
School’s out for summer.
While all the previous films have been different and explored different territory within the constructs of a school year, this film definitely takes us to new places by forgoing Hogwarts altogether. Now Harry, Ron, and Hermione are skipping school to search the country looking for the remaining horcruxes to destroy them and stop Voldemort and his no-nose face once and for all.
This one is not very delightful. This one is straight-up heart-wrenching drama and heart-pounding action. We see these characters get hurt, captured, almost killed, and lose hope. It just keeps going down, down, down.
But it gives the actors a chance to really explore new places. We see them both at each other’s side and at each other’s throats in ways we haven’t seen before. The tension becomes unbearable and the futility of their journey becomes overwhelming.
When you look at them side-to-side, it’s almost impossible to believe that this film belongs in the same franchise as The Sorcerer’s Stone. The films have becomes so mature at this point, and I don’t mean just by being violent or depressing, they’ve grown with the audience and started to tackle heavy emotional and thematic issues.
Although it’s not without its heartbreaking losses.
As the first part of a two-part film, it’s great, But even as its own film, it still works. Yates makes the film dour without ever making the viewer want to quit by sprinkling in enough action and entertainment as well as promise of hope to come.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011)
– Severus Snape
This is what I’m talking about.
After roaming the country looking for horcruxes, Harry, Ron and Hermione are finally brought back to Hogwarts for one final showdown. With everything on the line, they must destroy the final horcruxes within the castle and stop Voldemort before he and his no-nose face take over.
Like the first film, it’s just half of a two-part film, yet it still feels strong enough on its own. By wasting no time, the film feels like a highlights reel of itself. With the Gringotts escape, McGonagall enchanting the statues, Harry standing up to Snape, Neville cutting off a snake’s head with a sword, Harry fighting Voldemort, Mrs. Weasley absolutely wrecking Bellatrix Lestrange, and Snape’s tragic memories – every moment is one that will make your jaw drop or your heart break.
And there’s plenty of that to go around.
This film is an excellent finale to a monumental franchise. Fans of the books like me lament at some of the things that were cut, but that aside, this was a satisfying finale that was hard to say good-bye to. In fact I saw the film in theaters three times because I didn’t want it to be over.
It really gave us everything we’ve come to love over the course of these eight films. For every gut punch (seriously, how can you watch the scene with Snape’s memories and not fall apart?) there is good, honor, courage, friendship, the possibilities of magic, and an unfailing sense of hope.
“Whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.”
– J.K. Rowling
There’s so much to be said about these films, and yet I already feel like I’ve overstayed my welcome.
But Harry Potter is and always will be important to me. The first book came out in the United States when I was entering kindergarten, and the final film came out as I graduated high school.
I literally grew up with these characters and inside these stories. I read all the books, saw all the films, got all the toys, made friends solely based on our shared love of the books, and even now my keychain is that of a ticket for the Hogwarts Express. I went to the Wizarding world of Harry Potter in Orlando and got two wands. Why do I need two wands? I don’t. But I’m also the person who almost cried when I saw fake Hogwarts.
But for whatever the reason and no matter how old, Harry Potter is about important things and universal issues. Like the importance of friendship, bravery, and the courage to do the right thing in the face of adversity.
And that’s worth two wands, right?
Oh, and just in case you didn’t realize why I was sharing all this … Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is in theaters today.
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