Twenty years ago this week, on Sept. 1, 1998, J.K. Rowling first introduced Americans to her wondrous wizarding world with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the U.S.-rebranded title of her Philosopher’s Stone. Like the Beatles before him, Harry had already become a sensation in his native U.K., but his arrival in the States elevated the Boy Who Lived and his magical crew to a full-fledged pop-culture phenomenon.
Two decades later, our love affair with all things Potter shows no signs of abating, as the boy wizard’s saga continues to thrive in print, on stage with the Tony-winning Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, at Universal Studios theme parks (where Potter-specific lands are enormous draws), and of course, in movie theaters, with Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second installment in the popular spinoff prequel series, slated to arrive Nov. 16.
Given the persistent power of Pottermania, we at Yahoo Entertainment couldn’t resist spending this week celebrating Rowling’s fantasy epic, which remains one of the most beloved — and influential — franchises in the world. And what better way to begin our tribute to Harry Potter and the 20th anniversary than by offering up a definitive assessment of all adaptations of the author’s continually expanding magnum opus? At the risk of courting a barrage of Stupefy and Expelliarmus curses, this is our ranked rundown of the cinematic (and staged) Potterverse.
12. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1 (2010)
Had Warner Bros. not split Rowling’s Potter-capping Deathly Hallows into two films — the better to milk as much money as possible from the lucrative property — moviegoers wouldn’t have been blessed with the sterling Part 2, which ends the series in standout fashion. Nonetheless, that doesn’t change the fact that Part 1 is lots of dreary setup and little dramatic payoff. With evil fish-face Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) now in control of the Ministry of Magic, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) strive to find and destroy the “Horcruxes” that contain shards of Voldemort’s soul. Alas, they do this by taking to the woods and wasting copious screen time. While director David Yates sets a suitably ominous blue-black-gray mood, there’s little actual consequence to these particular proceedings, which are mainly designed to make sure viewers are ready for its electric followup.
11. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (2010)
Anyone traveling to Universal Studios theme parks in Orlando, Los Angeles, or Osaka will undoubtedly make the pilgrimage to the local Wizarding World outpost to quaff some butterbeer, tame a hippogriff, and, of course, tag along for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The fully immersive thrill ride in and around Hogwarts Castle, replete with live-action 3D sequences featuring many of the franchise’s film stars, is a signature attraction. Putting guests beside an airborne Harry as he dodges the Whomping Willow, evades Hagrid’s (Robbie Coltrane) enormous Hungarian Horntail dragon, and fends off dastardly dementors during a Quidditch match, Forbidden Journey is a consistently entertaining roller coaster simulation, albeit one lacking the same narrative focus as its park counterpart Escape From Gringotts. Any chance to enjoy some vertiginous thrills with the boy wizard (courtesy of Hermione’s floo powder, which gets riders off the ground) isn’t to be missed, especially if one has already had their fill of Diagon Alley.
10. Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts (2014)
If you want to get a more up-close-and-personal experience with The Deathly Hallows — Part 2, you have to travel to Universal Studios Florida’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter to take a ride on its flagship Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts. After traversing a line that snakes around, and into, the famed goblin-run financial institution (populated by animatronic tellers), you’re taken on a dark rollercoaster trip through its vaults, where you’re confronted (via gorgeous CGI-enhanced 3-D film projections) by Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and then aided by Bill Weasley (Domhnall Gleeson) and, yes, Harry, Ron, and Hermione. As that famed trio searches for a Horcrux, you’re attacked by giant armored adversaries and, eventually, Lord Voldemort himself, with your cart thrown this way and that. Though it’s only a five-minute jaunt (after what’s usually an insanely long wait), it packs more of a thrilling wallop than the entirety of Deathly Hallows — Part 1.
9. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
Rowling’s fourth novel is a gargantuan affair, and director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) manages to make an equally overstuffed adaptation while still truncating huge chunks of his source material. This time, Harry’s main focus is the famed Triwizard Tournament, which he competes in alongside doomed Hufflepuff champion Cedric Diggory (a young Robert Pattinson) — a lengthy CGI-ified competition that’s most notable for being dull as dirt. That Voldemort finally materializes in his proper amphibian-nosed Ralph Fiennes form does lend the action some much-needed evil energy, and Brendan Gleeson is a welcome addition as enigmatic Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher “Mad-Eye” Moody. Alas, this is the most bloated and insignificant stand-alone entry in the entire franchise, full of Ron-loves-Hermione thumb-twiddling and almost none of the puberty-related subtext that enlivened Alfonso Cuarón’s superior Prisoner of Azkaban.
8. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
What do you get if you remove Harry Potter from the Harry Potter universe? David Yates’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a competent but frustratingly stakes-free prequel about a plucky magician, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who in most respects proves the fabled boy wizard’s inferior. Setting the action in 1920s New York does provide a fresh angle on familiar magical mayhem, and Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol’s playful chemistry helps keep things pleasant enough. The overriding impression, however, is one of having been here and done this before, and with far greater purpose and portent, especially since Voldemort is a much more fearsome agent of destruction than the shadowy Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, in a thoroughly dispiriting reveal). To be fair, it may just turn out to be table-setter for far more exciting things to come — but on its own, Fantastic Beasts is a great deal less than fantastic.
7. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Year 2 at Hogwarts results in a number of memorable incidents, including a ride in a flying car that ends with a brush with the Whomping Willow, and an encounter with Hagrid’s imposing pet spider, Aragog. Plus, there’s an amusing Kenneth Branagh performance as cocky Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart. And yet Chamber of Secrets largely feels small when compared to Sorcerer’s Stone. Christopher Columbus’s direction is even more straightforward and unadventurous than before, and despite an intriguing mystery at its center, and revelations that help shine further light on the identity (and backstory) of He Who Must Not Be Named — who’s clearly trying to return to power — the climax feels overburdened by deus ex machinas that transform the episode into something of a rigged game. Not to mention that house elf Dobby, appearing in order to warn Harry about dangers that await him at school, is arguably the series’ most grating character.
6. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge is the primary draw of director David Yates’s Order of the Phoenix, serving as a maddening authoritarian antagonist for Harry and the rest of the Hogwarts student body. Staunton’s repressive villain is intensely unlikeable, and her infuriating actions help create an overarching mood of tyrannical doom and gloom that’s amplified by sterling Harry nightmares about Voldemort — which, in turn, further root the story in the increasingly adult anxieties of its protagonist. There’s a pervasive impression of this formerly bright world going (literally and figuratively) dark. Too bad, then, that there’s a good deal of peripheral stuff jammed into this adaptation, including a series of romances as well as Harry’s covert magic-arts tutelage of his Hogwarts compatriots. The sheer wealth of plot strands have the unintended effect of making them all seem less than urgent, which in the end renders this installment uneven.
5. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016)
Despite achieving a domestic happily-ever-after at the end of The Deathly Hallows, Harry, Ron, and Hermione reunited for another adventure in 2016 courtesy of The Cursed Child, a two-part play that picks up with Potter in adulthood, as an employee at the Ministry of Magic and the father to a son, Albus Severus Potter, heading off to Hogwarts. On the page, Jack Thorne’s sequel — based on an original story by Rowling, Thorne, and John Tiffany — is a minor letdown, in large part because the material has been conceived, from the ground up, as something to be seen rather than read. Those lucky enough to have checked it out in London (or more recently in New York), know that, while the tale itself wasn’t exactly necessary (in truth, it comes across as something of an accomplished addendum), its theatrical staging is a routine marvel, so inventive that it remains a must-see for casual and die-hard Potterphiles alike.
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone/Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
Christopher Columbus’s film is so concerned with cramming everything from Rowling’s hit novel onto the screen (lest a Potterphile rebellion break out from the start) that it plays as an occasionally plodding introduction. However, it also sets the series’ stage with suitable magic and wonder. Harry’s discovery of his lineage, his maiden trip to Hogwarts, his first encounter with Ron and Hermione, and his eye-opening education in the myriad mystical elements of his new life (the Sorting Hat! Hedwig! Hagrid! Spells!) are all handled with aplomb. Though far from a distinguished visual stylist, Columbus skillfully establishes the iconography upon which the entire series relies, John Williams provides a suitably magical score, and Radcliffe is winning as the wide-eyed (and yet up-for-the-challenge) forehead-scarred protagonist. Amidst so many exciting sights, the mystery of the sorcerer’s/philosopher’s stone invariably feels perfunctory, but there’s far more good than evil to be found in this multimedia franchise-initiating blockbuster.
3. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
David Yates’s second directorial outing is best remembered for the death of Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), Hogwarts’ aged headmaster, and Half-Blood Prince deftly handles that tragic occurrence. Better than that incident — or, for that matter, the wispy suspense material that precedes it — is this sixth film’s focus on its protagonist, who’s finally confronted with the full annihilation-grade stakes of his circumstances. Harry’s pining for Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), and Hermione’s for Ron, grounds the story in relatable teen terms — the end of the world seems a cataclysm almost on par with the rejection of a coveted paramour. As with the prior Order of the Phoenix, the action sometimes feels like mere placeholder material meant to bide time before the arrival of The Deathly Hallows. Radcliffe’s increasingly mature lead turn, though, bestows it with considerable vitality.
2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 (2011)
Just as 2010’s The Deathly Hallows — Part 1 was destined, by its very construction, to be a disappointment, so too was 2011’s Part 2 fated to deliver the climactic goods. And deliver it does, via a rousing final showdown between Harry and Voldemort that boasts a grandeur — in terms of expert staging and powerful emotional import — befitting the event the series had been teasing for the prior decade. Though that wand-against-wand face-off winds up being more than worth the wait, the true success of David Yates’s film hinges on its portrait of friendship as the greatest force in the universe, able to withstand all manner of apocalyptic obstacles and provide light in times of greatest darkness. Reuniting many of its players in an all-out effort for survival, and featuring sterling performances from its enormous cast (and, in particular, Radcliffe and Alan Rickman), it’s the grown-up franchise-capper fans deserved.
1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Hire a great director, and — surprise! — you get a great movie. The only Potter film to truly treat its source material as a starting point for cinematic artistry rather than as a sacrosanct holy grail to be dutifully replicated at every opportunity, The Prisoner of Azkaban finds Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Roma) translating Rowling’s text through expressive visual means. Never is that more apparent than in the first scene, in which Harry is spied fiddling with his wand under the covers — a slyly symbolic snapshot of pubescent maturation that immediately marks the film as a cut above its Christopher Columbus-helmed precursors. Throw in the first appearances of Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, and Timothy Spall, as well as a tantalizing story that only gets slightly bogged down during a time-travel-centric third act, and you’ve got an enduring fantasy classic that sets its hero on his path toward terrifying teendom.
Come back tomorrow for the next installment in our Harry Potter and the 20th Anniversary series.
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