Perhaps the last thing the Harry Potter franchise needs is for me to sing its praises. Successful with both box office revenue and critical appreciation, these eight movies, based on seven books, have achieved a popularity that makes it doubtful that anyone reading this review has not already seen the movies. I imagine there are die-hard haters out there who refuse, on a manner of principle, to see the movies. And I know not all critics and moviegoers liked them. But I did like them. Change that to the present tense. I do like them. There are a lot of movies out there that I revisit every two or three years, and some movies that I revisit once a year. But the Harry Potter movies are movies that I watch two, three, even four times a year. Rather than saturating me, these multiple viewings increase my appreciation of the films.
Yet I had never written about the series. Why not? Partly because you never needed me to write about it. The public discovered Harry Potter and the magical world without my help. In fact, these movies, and the books they were based on, were popular for years prior to my interest in them. The first Harry Potter film I saw was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), and by the time I saw that movie, they had already released Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005). Since I hadn’t read the books or seen the previous movies, I felt lost. The biggest weakness of the series is that they are sequential. This movie franchise needs to be seen in order. Otherwise, you’re going to feel, as I felt, lost. That feeling of lost caused me to under appreciate the movie.
The next year, knowing that this series wasn’t going to away, that it was now well rooted in the popular culture of the Western World, I decided to read the books. I prefer to read the books before seeing the movies, anyway, but I had shied away from reading them, because they were written as children and young adult literature. I have nothing against that market, but children and young adult are not genres I read often. So I read the novels in the order they appeared. By the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010) was released, I knew the story. Part 1 was the second Harry Potter movie I saw. Before Part 2 came out the next year, I had seen all of them. Having read the novels and seen the movies in order, I no longer felt lost. In its place came the appreciation that has continued to grow.
I feel the time has come for me to review the movies. Though it makes for a longer articles than most of my blog posts, I’m going to write a collective review. There is logic in this, since the movies combined tell one story about a remarkable boy. Since the series had been out for years and have been popular, I’m going to trust that you have seen the movies or read the book, so I won’t avoid spoilers.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Harry, an orphan living with his aunt and uncle—who both neglect and abuse him—grew up feeling the absence of his loving parents. On his eleventh birthday, he discovered he’s a wizard, and like all young wizards and witches, he’s to attend Hogwarts School. As he entered the magical world, he discovered the truth about his parent’s death. Rather than dying in a car accident, as his aunt had told him, Lily and James Potter were killed by a dark wizard, Voldemort. Harry himself will meet Voldemort. Weakened, living as a parasite in the body of another, Voldemort struggled to find a means to return to his own body.
Since it’s the first Harry Potter film, it is also the one that contains the most exposition. As such, it is my least favorite. Take me to the plot, I say, and keep me there. But Sorcerer’s Stone spent too much time in world building that slowed down the pace and added to its runtime. World building is the bane of writers and filmmakers. They need to create the fictional reality—how’s that for an oxymoron?—where the story will transpire, and it needs to feel as real to them as the real world. Though an inherent part of the creation process, it often contains details that the reader and filmgoer do not need to know in order to enjoy and understand the story.
Despite the exposition, director Chris Columbus kept a solid pace and a continuous forward motion. He wove the exposition through various scenes, so we never received a big lump of it at a time. He set up the main conflict—Harry Potter versus Voldemort—told us the backstory, and introduced all the main players, from Dumbledore to Snape, from Hermione to Draco Malfoy. Since the exposition established the world that we would visit not only for this movie but also for seven others, this exposition wasn’t wasted. But though scattered throughout the movie, the exposition overpowered the plot. That’s why I believe this is the weakest film in the series.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Flying cars, house elves, and a basilisk—we are now imbedded in the magical world, and now we are playing with it. In it we find fun new things to enjoy, but we also find darkness. The Chamber of Secrets begin with Dobby, a house elf, visiting Harry and warning him not to return to Hogwarts. Despite this warning, Harry returned. But an evil haunts the castle, as the Heir of Slytherin opened the Chamber of Secrets and released the monster within. The monster petrified students, but once before, fifty years ago, it had been released, and that time, a student had been killed. It seemed only a matter of time before the monster kills again. Harry faced the monster, the basilisk, in the final act, but he also met Tom Riddle, who would become Voldemort.
Though still a family film, there is a sense of danger in The Chamber of Secrets that never existed in The Sorcerer’s Stone. Though Harry was in danger at times in The Sorcerer’s Stone, that danger was localized to him. In The Chamber of Secrets, we learn that Voldemort’s agenda was to purified the magical blood, to get rid of half-bloods like Hermione. This put several students in danger and created urgency to Harry’s conflict against Voldemort. He was no longer fighting just to revenge his parents but also to protect others in the magical world.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
As I said above, this was the first Harry Potter movie I saw, and it proved not to be a good introduction to the magical world. One reason was because I didn’t understand the relationships and revelations of the previous two movies, so I felt lost in this movie. But another reason—perhaps the main reason—this movie did little to advance Harry’s battle against Voldemort. The Dark Lord isn’t even the antagonist.
I think of The Prisoner of Azkaban as a pivot from the children movies that came before to the darker, violent movies that would follow. When Sirius Black escapes from Azkaban, the wizard prison, everyone suspected he would come to kill Harry. For that reason, dementors, the phantom guards of Azkaban, guard and search the grounds of Hogwarts for the escapee. But these dementors are no friends to Harry. They fed off the tragedies of his life. But in his battle against dementors, Harry learned the strength of his own magical powers.
Though my second least favorite movie of the series, this movie provides an important link in the story that can’t be denied. It introduced important characters for the remaining series, include Sirius Black, Professor Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
In The Globlet of Fire, the Harry Potter series begins it darker tone. The contest between Harry and Voldemort turned deadly. When Hogwarts was chosen to host the Triwizard Tournament, teams from France and Scandinavia arrived to complete against Hogwarts’ champion. Though Cedric Diggory was the official contestant from Hogwarts, the Goblet of Fire chose a fourth contestant—Harry Potter. Harry had to face dragons and merpeople to win, but in the end, his true advisory was Voldemort.
The Goblet of Fire represents the point-of-no-return for Harry. When Voldemort returned to his form, Harry realized that in the end either he or Voldemort would be killed. There is a beautiful moment of visual story telling during the cemetery scene. Harry hid behind a tombstone as Voldemort taunted him. Across Harry’s face, we see the struggles of emotions, from fear to anger to resolve. Daniel Radcliffe learned to act playing Harry Potter, and by the end of the series, he was a competent actor. But that moment was arguably the best acting he did in the series. When Harry stepped out of hiding, we knew he had made the decision either to destroy Voldemort or die trying.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
Now that Voldemort had returned, Harry felt impatient to confront him. The Order of the Phoenix, an organization that had help defeat the Dark Lord the first time, reformed, and Harry wanted to enlist. But both the adults in the Order and Dumbledore believed it was best to protect him. Controversy arrived at Hogwarts in the form of Dolores Umbridge. She soon usurped Dumbledore as headmaster. When she put a ban on learning defensive tactics, Harry, Hermione, and Ron formed Dumbledore’s Army to teach the students defensive spells. It proved handy, because in the climatic scene, Harry and other members of Dumbledore’s Army had to face Death Eaters—Voldemort’s army.
This movie ended in the Battle at the Ministry of Magic, one of the best set pieces of the series. It had everything: one wizard army fighting another, death, destruction, and a duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore. We met Bellatrix Lestrange, Sirius Black’s cousin, and Voldemort’s most vicious lieutenant.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
At Hogwarts, Harry found a textbook of spells with hand-written notes by “The Half-Blood Prince.” Following those notes, Harry became the best student in spells. Even better than Hermione! But it also led him into darkness, as it became clear that the Half-Blood Prince was a wizard capable of darkness. Meanwhile, Dumbledore set Harry the task of recovering a memory from Horace Slughorn. And Professor Snape joined in an evil alliance with Draco Malfoy. A conspiracy of murder!
The Half-Blood Prince introduces a dark magic called Horcrux. Harry learned that Voldemort had divided his soul into seven parts and placed them in these Horcruxes. That was why the Dark Lord didn’t die the first time. And to kill him this time meant finding and destroying all the Horcruxes.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 and 2 (2010 and 2011)
I’ve heard other reviewers criticize splitting the final novel into two parts for the movie franchise, but I believe that was the right decision. What were the other options? Either to have a 5- or 6-hour long movie—impossible with kids—or to tunicate the plot so badly that the story falls apart—either option would’ve ruined an otherwise well-structured series.
In Part 1, Harry, Ron, and Hermione set out on their hunt for Horcruxes. Once they recovered one, they discovered they lacked the means to destroy it. Meanwhile, Ron became disillusioned with their quest. But he returned more committed than before. Harry and Hermione visited Godric’s Hollow, where Harry’s parents met their death. And the trio learned about the Deathly Hollows: the Resurrection Stone, the Cloak of Invisibility, and the Elder Wand. Together they made one master of death; they made one immortal. This movie ends with the biggest cliffhanger of the series, as Harry realized Voldemort’s plan was to gain the Deathly Hollows, especially the Elder Wand.
In Part 2, Harry, Ron, and Hermione returned to Hogwarts to find the last Horcrux. After expelling Professor Snape—now headmaster—Harry, the Order of the Phoenix, and the staff and students of Hogwarts prepare for battle. The Battle of Hogwarts is the climax of the series, and it’s the biggest set piece in the franchise. Several characters rose to strength, especially Neville Longbottom. This character, introduced as comic relief in the earlier movies, possessed a strong will and a deep integrity. But in the end, it had to be Harry who faced Voldemort. They dueled to the death. I’ll give you one guess who won.
Though I have favorite movies and least favorite ones, there’s not a movie in this franchise that I would say is a bad movie. Think about that for a moment. How many 8-movie franchises can make the claim that each movie is a critical success? Or a 5-movie franchise, for that matter. Most franchises begin to fall apart around the third or fourth movie, but they continue to perform well at the box-office, because they have a fanbase who keeps hoping the movies will return to their glory days. The Harry Potter franchise never suffered this decline in quality.
Grounded in the novels of R. K. Rowling, who had approval over the screenplays, the movies had strong characters, compelling plots, and thought-provoking themes. Without a doubt, this qualifies them as fine literature. Though each movie can stand alone, they are best seen as one continuous story. This story follows Harry Potter and his friends from their childhood to their late teens, and as such, Rowling created characters for a generation to grow up with. Though a successful marketing strategy, it also proved to be an effective literary device that allowed for a more complex character arc than would be possible in one novel or movie. As Harry grew up, so did the complexity of the problems he faced. While the early movies are fun and playful, they later movies became dark and dangerous.
Since this is a longer article than most, I won’t spend a lot time in the technical and artistic elements of the films. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, play Harry, Hermione, and Ron, respectively. Though their acting was uneven in the earlier movies, each became a more skilled performer as they matured. Four directors worked on the movies over the series. My favorite contribution came from David Yates, who directed the last four movies, the later, darker movies. Behind these faces stand a small army of cinematographers, CGI artists, production designers, editors, and other collaborators. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Alan Rickman as Professor Snape. The ambiguous nature of Snape’s loyalties required the series most subtle acting, and Rickman rose to the occasion.
There are several movies that I watch, enjoy, and then forget about. In truth, most movies fall into this category. They aren’t bad movies. It’s just they have no meat. At least not for me. A movie’s plot keeps us in our seat, but its the characters that provide the emotional value. From those emotions, we begin the conversation about the themes. Rowling had said the theme is death, and there is plenty of death to be had in this franchise. But it is a shallow work that has only one theme. There is a reason these movies hold my attention, and that is because they explore several themes. Some are individual themes, like courage or the strength inside us, while others are more universal, like the struggle between good and evil. It is the nature of theme that each of us can pull our own interpretation from the story, and that interpretation can change over time. I keep watching these films over and over, because they keep giving me new things to find and enjoy and think about.