I think we need a little break from the prestige pics, don't you?
It's now been roughly two-and-a-half years since the end of the "Harry Potter" film series, giving us the necessary distance to look back more critically at the whole set. I saw all but two of the movies in theaters, and count myself as a casual fan. I was in college when the first installment hit the big screen, so nostalgia never really colored my view of "Harry Potter," and I'm pretty confident in my assessment of the individual movies, enough to write this post anyway. So from the best, to the least, here's how I rank the "Harry Potter" films:
The Prisoner of Azkaban - Bringing on Alphonso Cuarón to direct the third installment was a vital course correction after the two Chris Columbus films that were a little too faithful and a little too safe. "Azkaban" is darker, gloomier, and you start getting a sense of the bigger and more forbidding challenges that lay ahead. The kids begin to assert themselves more as actors, and the we see some real depth to the characters at last. Best of all, this one actually works very well as a film, drastically cutting down the book to its essentials and making some notable departures.
The Deathly Hallows Part I - It's been argued that this is the installment that is the least necessary to the series, because the last book was unnecessarily split into two movies. Not much action happens here, with most of the running time devoted to tidying up plot threads and setting up the big finale. However, this is one of the few times that things slow down enough that you actually get some solid character development among the three leads. I also think that this is one of the best looking of the "Harry Potter" movies, with all the outdoors scenes set in these beautiful winter landscapes.
The Order of the Phoenix - The first of the "Harry Potter" films to be directed by David Yates, who would go on to helm the entire second half of the series. I rank this one so high because it's such a vast improvement over the unwieldy book in showing Harry's growing pains and gradual emergence as a leader. It also features one of my favorite villains in the series, Dolores Umbridge, as played by Imelda Staunton, and introduced its best comic relief, Evanna Lynch's Luna Lovegood. The ending was a little on the rough side - the big death doesn't work in any version - but satisfying.
The Chamber of Secrets - I seem to like this one more than most people, because while it may be relentlessly pandering to children and drenched in whimsy, it is a lot of fun. You have the sequences with the flying car and the giant spiders, which were a big step up in special effects from the downright shoddy CGI work in the first film. There's also Kenneth Branagh playing the pompous Gilderoy Lockhart and all the stuff with Dobby, which help to make up for some of the shortfalls in the plotting. It's a good reminder that there were far worse choices to handle these early movies than Chris Columbus.
The Deathly Hallows Part II - This one would probably be a little lower on the list if it weren't for the excellent work of Alan Rickman as Professor Snape. As fun as it was to watch a full scale battle at Hogwarts, there was always the feeling that it wasn't nearly as big or as epic as it could have been. So many familiar faces show up for only a second or two of screen time, and Voldemort is not nearly as menacing as he was in some of the previous films. Still, credit is due for sticking a tricky landing and ending the series in a much better place than were it began.
The Half Blood Prince - I haven't revisited this one since I first saw it, but I do recall how badly the big events of the ending got bungled and how that really undermined the rest of the film. Nonetheless, I liked the more melancholy atmosphere, especially the Draco sequences. Romance was never the strong suit of "Harry Potter," and it's a shame that it takes up so much of this movie. I wouldn't say Harry and Ginny's relationship is handled badly, but it feels inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, and not enough time is spent really ramping things up as we go into the finale.
The Sorcerer's Stone/The Philosopher's Stone - It's actually something of a shock to look at this film now and realize how mediocre it is. The effects are really very poor in places, especially anything involving the fantasy creatures. And it's almost off-putting how aggressively it pushes its fluffy fantasy aesthetic, with the oversaturated bright colors and bombastic John Williams score. Still, it does manage to present some lovely images, has a great sense of humor, and critically had all the right talent and casting in place to propel the series forward into much more ambitious territory.
The Goblet of Fire - Sorry Mike Newell, but I disliked "Goblet of Fire," which took a downright campy and goofy approach to a story that I thought was supposed to be another step toward darker and more grown-up material. This is the one where all the boys had long hair, a lot of time was wasted with a school dance, and we had what was possibly the worst acting by Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in all eight films. I was really worried about the series after this one, and it was a relief that none of the subsequent sequels got this wacky again.