The most amazing thing about the Harry Potter movies remains the casting. How in the world did they nail the casting of these seven-year-old kids, who essentially had to carry a billion-dollar franchise for more than a decade as audiences watched them grow up and become some of the most recognizable people in the world?
How did they stay so sane? Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint are adults now, but they’ll forever be Harry, Hermione, and Ron. They were the perfect cast. And they made some excellent films.
For this week’s Debate Club, we rank the five best Harry Potter movies ahead of the release of the latest Potter-verse adventure, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
The thickest book to that point, the fourth Potter novel raises the stakes, the first big official transition for these kids out of childhood into the messiness of adolescence and teenage life.
This is the movie that has the Triwizard Tournament, a competition that in the movie, like in the book, raises the stakes to a life-and-death level, never more apparent than with the perfect, heroic Cedric Diggory, played by a then-mostly unknown Robert Pattison.
The series got darker with this installment... and it never quite lightened up again.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
Also known as The One Where Dumbledore Dies, Half-Blood Prince grapples with loss and love, not to mention adolescent arrogance as Harry begins to really start feeling himself.
In other words, the sixth film in the franchise plays like a precursor to every dark teenage fantasy/drama series that’s sprung up in its wake. By Half-Blood Prince, a gathering gloom was descending on Hogwarts, and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel helped give the proceedings a chilly, forbidding aura, setting the stage for the climactic two-film finale.
And, yeah, Dumbledore’s death is one of the great blockbuster-cinema gut-punches — up there with Han Solo meeting his maker in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The Harry Potter movies lost their innocence in that moment.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011)
Considering these movies lasted a decade and spanned eight — eight! — different films, wrapping it all up in a satisfying bow was always going to be a challenge. It’s astounding, then, that they pulled it off, with an emotional conclusion that feels both messy and also true to the story that led us all to that point. And look how grownup everybody is!
We love Boyhood more than anyone, but there is a certain documentarian thrill, almost an Apted Potter Up! series, as we see these kids we met a decade earlier grow into powerful, formidable adults.
Voldemort, as it turned out, never stood a chance.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 (2010)
Sometimes, the setup to the finale is ultimately more satisfying than the actual ending. The first half of Deathly Hallows thrusts us into the raised stakes and ominous chill left in the wake of Half-Blood Prince as Harry and his chums try to track down the Horcruxes in order to finally defeat Voldemort.
By this stage of the series, the Harry Potter movies were far more dystopian thrillers/war films than endearing family entertainment, and it’s a credit to all three actors that they could carry the burden of such an ominous narrative. Part 1 has a haunting quality to it, a sense that these kids must finally leave childhood behind.
Some complain that this installment is all set up, but what a gorgeously mournful setup it is. And the animated sequence illustrating “The Tale of the Three Brothers” is one of the franchise’s most transporting.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
And here we are: at the lowest-grossing Harry Potter film. It’s also the one that marked Radcliffe’s leap from adorable kid actor to accomplished thespian. Prisoner of Azkaban was significantly darker than the first two films, a testament to the hiring of Alfonso Cuarón, who wasn’t an obvious choice as director. (His big credit before then was the little-seen but brilliant Y Tu Mamá También.)
Radcliffe, for one, is forever indebted to him. “I think he did wonders for the series and all of us,” the actor said in 2013. “That was the film where I was suddenly of an age for the first time where I was able to be directed by him — more than I had been capable of being in the past. … I think that whole film is a huge turning point — it’s really where I decided that I wanted to be and absolutely continue to be an actor.”
In Azkaban, Harry learns some terrible truths about his family, and the film introduced us to one of its key supporting players, Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, who automatically upped the series’ intensity.
Cuarón has gone on to be a major filmmaker with Children of Men, Gravity, and the forthcoming Roma. As for Azkaban, it prepared Potter fans for the sophisticated swirl of emotion, sensitivity, despair, and magic that was to come.