Ranking the Wizarding World: From Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to Crimes of Grindelwald

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Ranking the Wizarding World: From <i>Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone</i> to <i>Crimes of Grindelwald</i>

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter epic is a thematic Trojan Horse: What starts as an innocent tale of magic and empowerment sheds its exterior to comment on the abrasive social plagues of racism and totalitarian politics. It’s a series that grew up with its readers, and the same can certainly be said for its film translations, that’s releases span two decades. As with many modern fictions of good vs. evil, The Boy Who Lived assumed a renewed degree of relevance in the wake of a political regime proud of its unsubtle ties to racism and white supremacy…and a creator that couldn’t stop tweeting her bad opinions. Regardless, that heady mix of real-world volatility and adolescent power fantasy resulted in over $9 billion dollars in worldwide receipts.

Ten years ago, the final film in the main HP storyline (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2) hit theaters, giving fans what they thought was some closure to Rowling’s tale of witchcraft and wizardry…until, of course, she decided to write a new series of movies based around that lil’ magical guy we all know(?) and love(?), Newt Scamander.

In honor of this, we dove into Rowling’s cinematic oeuvre, putting on our own critical Sorting Hat to see which films hold up and where the most recent contributions fit into this franchise’s ever-changing legacy.

Here are all of the movies in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, ranked:

10. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

harry-potter-and-the-chamber-of-secrets-poster.jpg Year: 2002
Director: Chris Columbus
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith
Rating: PG
Runtime: 161 minutes

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Chamber of Secrets isn’t a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, but it did demonstrate severe growing pains. Revolving around a secret chasm underneath the magician training ground of Hogwarts that threatens to release a reptilian monster that would, in no uncertain terms, commit genocide against students born of non-magic lineage, Steve Klove’s screenplay is never able to amend that austerity with the buoyant escapism that occupies much of the runtime. The narrative flits from centaurs and baby dragons to ethnic cleansing at a breathless pace, never meditating on the sheer horror of what it’s proposed—a horror that will come three films later. The movie shines only when it hints at the sweeping canvas Rowling had already woven: Harry’s view into the past at arch-villain Tom Riddle and a beardless Hagrid shows a staggering degree of forethought and consideration that would unfurl throughout the next six iterations. The film also confirmed its greatest strength: A cast of British thespians who could turn goofy spell incantations into Shakespearean drama. Big American “stars” would have hijacked the characters and their eccentricities, but with Kenneth Branagh as preening, narcissist Gilderoy Lockhart and Richard Harris as paternal grand wizard Dumbledore, immersion was a certainty.


9. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

fantastic-beasts-the-crimes-of-grindelwald-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: David Yates
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Callum Turner, Zoë Kravitz, Jude Law, Ezra Miller, Claudia Kim, Alison Sudol, Johnny Depp
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 134 minutes

Available to rent

With each successive film set in the Harry Potter universe, the presentation of the Wizarding World becomes more honed and more visually wondrous, as if the very moment of “wow!” can be distilled and purified into a concoction that will keep a viewer’s mouth permanently agape. David Yates’ Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald may represent the apex of this process, which eschews the mundane for the magical. There are wizards aplenty, apparating right and left (and up and down); there are coruscating energies contained and unleashed; and there are, of course, lots of fantastic beasts. If only it was all in service of a good story, or even a decent one. Instead, characters, creatures and many a plot device are dumped out on the floor at the feet of the viewer. Like a sack of shiny baubles, there may be plenty of sparkle, but the story being pieced together from the jumble is told with all the narrative flair—and nearly equal amounts of exposition—of a Wikipedia entry. Because of these problems—as well as a multitude of other, even more mundane scripting issues—Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald elicits the wrong type of wonder. You’ll wonder why the film seems so uncertain as to whom its central characters are. You’ll wonder why those characters do half the things they do. You’ll wonder how a boat full of teleporting wizards manages to drown. But most of all, you may just wonder whether this particular branch of the Potter cinematic family tree was worth cultivating.—Michael Burgin


8. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-poster.jpg Year: 2016
Director: David Yates
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Carmen Ejogo, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Jon Voight, Ron Perlman
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 132 minutes

Available to rent

Franchising isn’t a new thing, but of late it has gotten worse in the sense that movies are becoming more conscious of their serialization. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, that dynamic splits the production into two parts: one concerning fantastic beasts and, yes, the appropriate methods of finding them, the other concerning Standard Issue Dark Wizard Shit™, the latter all the proof you need of the film’s intrinsic taint prior to buying a ticket. Remember that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is derived from the Wizarding World, where it’s nothing more than a required textbook for all first-year students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, rather than a distinct story of its own. Just turning that text into narrative requires major storytelling gymnastics. Stitching it to the Potterverse’s overarching clashes with the baddest hombres of the wizarding world, though, requires something more, like an insatiable hunger for box office revenue. It’d be a crime of sorts to turn Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them into the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a hapless, shy, gratingly twitchy wizard who accidentally sets a handful of magical creatures loose in 1920s New York City, and who must catch ‘em all before things get out of hand. (The Pokémon GO tie-in jokes are as obvious as they are endless. Unlike that game, though, the film actually has a conclusion, such as it is.) But that’d be more of a misdemeanor than a felony. By contrast, portentous material involving a spate of unexplained and destructive attacks throughout the city, coupled with the search for the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, feels like murder.


7. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

harry-potter-and-the-sorcerers-stone-poster.jpg Year: 2001
Director: Chris Columbus
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Ian Hart
Rating: PG
Runtime: 152 minutes

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Director Chris Columbus tends to be neglected for what may be the most valuable contribution to the Potter film dynasty: Producing a debut feature successful enough to warrant a sequel. Think that’s a foregone conclusion for a fantasy book series with a built-in audience of millions? Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass sold 3.5M copies in the United States before its film adaptation from Chris Weitz firmly tanked any prospects of its two sequels visiting the silver screen. Even Tim Burton’s adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children only grossed $85.2M in North America, leaving the orphanage’s filmic future in jeopardy. Columbus built an accessible, charming introduction to Rowling’s cosmos, accumulating more than $317M in America alone. It doesn’t quite dive into the realpolitik overtones that flavor the later, superior entries, but neither did its source material. The film channels Rowling’s Roald Dahl adulation of whimsically awful adults oppressing youth—it’s no surprise that Harry’s buffoonish aunt and uncle became far less prominent in the mythos as the saga progressed and Rowling developed her voice. Production designer Stuart Craig gave the magic a grandiose tactility, most noticeable in the ornate, warm halls of Hogwarts. Though Sorcerer’s Stone may not flaunt the epic, good vs. evil dynamism of its successors, and though it sports some thrift store CGI, the first film did create a stable scaffolding that wouldn’t have existed if Rowling had employed her first pick to helm: The more imaginative, and far less consistent, Terry Gilliam.


6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2

harry-potter-and-the-deathly-hallows-part-2-poster.jpg Year: 2011
Director: David Yates
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Gary Oldman
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 130 minutes

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For a saga that revolves around the power of undying love and intimate personal history, this final installment feels strangely antiseptic and impersonal—if grandiose. Professor McGonagall (immaculately played by Maggie Smith) finally casts more than stern looks in a brilliant bit of spellplay against Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), and Harry and his crew’s infiltration of Gringotts Bank offers more enthralling worldbuilding and dragon hijacking. But the final clash between Voldemort and Harry is confusingly anticlimactic—the concluding plot mechanic relies on esoteric wand lore instead of any larger commentary on heroism, fear or persecution. Severus Snape’s flashbacks stand as a highlight, coloring past events with a new blanket of bittersweet drama and motive. The movie’s a confirmation that Harry and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) were the least nuanced characters in their own story. Whereas the book could dive into the reactions and ramifications of the warfare fatalities, the film tosses the limp bodies of soldiers like Tonks (Natalia Tena) and Lupin (David Thewlis) aside in seconds. Though the sight of marching stone soldiers and spells that cast protective snow globes are certainly impressive, we all expected a bit more from this finale.


5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 1

harry-potter-and-the-deathly-hallows-part-1-poster.jpg Year: 2010
Director: David Yates
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 146 minutes

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The first half of Harry’s concluding year may be the hardest to qualify: It features a handful of visually arresting, smart action sequences, but it also grinds to a staggering halt for an overwhelming chunk of its middle. Director Yates can’t be totally blamed for the tedium of watching Harry, Hermione and Ron camping, arguing and watching magical hallucinations of themselves hooking up that most definitely weren’t in the book. This cloud-before-the-storm banality also occupies much ink in Rowling’s prose, and its excision would have possibly cut the concluding chapter down to one film, or at least this movie into a feature briefer than two and a half hours. Aside from pondering how to eradicate Horcruxes—antiques that hide portions of Voldemort’s soul—the film does feature a nice chase sequence between the Order and the Death Eaters, as well as the most heroic act by an owl in cinema history. As a whole, though, Deathly Hallows is a springboard for an ending that also lacked the soul of its previous chapters.


4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

harry-potter-and-the-goblet-of-fire-poster.jpg Year: 2005
Director: Mike Newell
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Brendan Gleeson, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Robert Pattinson, David Tennant
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 157 minutes

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Kudos to screenwriter Steve Kloves, who translated all the mainline Potter films save Order of the Phoenix, for funneling a 734-page tome into one coherent movie. Though Goblet excels in economy and distillation, it also left many Potterheads wondering where S.P.E.W. (the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) and a riddle-spouting sphinx had disappeared to. On its own terms, though, the near three-hour movie flies by faster than a Golden Snitch. The entry expands the world past Hogwarts by introducing competing schools in a tournament that, among highlights, pits Harry and a very young Robert Pattinson (playing Cedric Diggory) against vicious merfolk. The climax also sees the grand, corporeal debut of Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, who had been relegated to CGI in previous entries. If there was any question whether this villain and his cronies, the Death Eaters, were stand-ins for Nazis, casting the bad guy from Schindler’s List should answer that question. The development ratchets up the tension before sliding into some confusing plot logic regarding wand science that also reemerges in Deathly Hallows. But (spoiler alert), damn, if the sight of Harry cradling the corpse of Cedric Diggory isn’t one of the most evocative visuals from the canon. It’s also a scenario that portends the following four Potter movies as the casualties increase.


3. Harry Potter and the Order of The Phoenix

harry-potter-and-the-order-of-the-phoenix-poster.jpg Year: 2007
Director: David Yates
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Imelda Staunton
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 138 minutes

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Order of the Phoenix may reference a group of benevolent freedom fighters operating under Dumbledore’s leadership, but this new, dark status quo was defined by the creeping evil that had usurped the press, the government and, slowly, Hogwarts. Curiously, that maliciousness didn’t revolve around the resurrected Voldemort, but a middle-aged woman with a fondness for cats and corporal punishment. Senior Undersecretary Dolores Umbridge, played with saccharine malice by Imelda Staunton, is a high point of the series and an even more memorable adversary than He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Umbridge matter-of-factly denies the existence of the Death Eaters and Harry’s ordeals, normalizing apathy and providing an all too relatable proxy for so, so many real world events. She was also a secret sadist who revelled in watching children etch apologies into their own flesh. Despite Umbridge and a grand finale that pitted Voldemort and his cronies against the magician equivalent of the Justice League, Order can feel more like interstitial tissue than its own singular beast at times. Umbridge, while standing in as the primary antagonist for much of the film, is unceremoniously dispatched to allow the overarching mythos a last-minute spotlight. That said, who can complain about a showdown between Voldemort and Dumbledore featuring water prisons and hellfire snakes?


2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

harry-potter-and-the-half-blood-prince-poster.jpg Year: 2009
Director: David Yates
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Jim Broadbent, Helena Bonham Carter
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 153 minutes

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The first thing you’ll notice about Half-Blood Prince is that it’s gorgeous. Director Yates had gotten his footing in Order of the Phoenix, and this follow-up displayed a stylishness that elevates his best contribution to Rowling’s cosmos. Cinematographer Bruo Delbonnel desaturates the color palette while adding casts of green, gray, auburn and crimson. It’s a timeless, high-drama approach which calls to mind the claustrophobic surrealism of Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari when the action escalates, as well as the wartime romance of films like Casablanca as the emotions flood. While the Deathly Hallows films may offer the most Wagnerian spectacle, Half-Blood Prince remains the interpersonal climax of the Potter saga. It’s a trippy, bold descent into the psyches of the characters and a statement to the complexities that separate them from their imitators in less nuanced fantasy. Snape and Dumbledore—respectively embodied by Alan Rickman and Michael Gambon—etch out a dynamic that never stops surprising, and the films become infinitely less interesting with their respective exits.


1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

harry-potter-and-the-prisoner-of-azkaban-poster.jpg Year: 2004
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis
Rating: PG
Runtime: 142 minutes

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Unlike predecessor Chamber of Secrets, third entry Prisoner of Azkaban straddles a sublime balance between childhood revelry and encroaching doom as Harry, Hermione and Ron age into an ambivalent future—the same tonal tug-of-war that also defined Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s earlier efforts, including A Little Princess and Y Tu Mamá También. Cuarón introduces a brisker pace and, in many instances, a sheer goofiness that can’t be found anywhere else in the books or movies. The Potterverse reaches peak Dahl homage in the film’s opening scenes, when Harry warps his aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) into a bloated balloon, mirroring the actions of an alliteratively-named magician who happens to run a chocolate factory. Shrunken voodoo-head bus navigators, a monstrous book of monsters and Professor Snape in heels round out a feverish, lighthearted romp through the Wizarding World. But this film wouldn’t rank this highly for those reasons alone: Azkaban firmly yanks the rug back as it progresses, painting a severe contrast between Harry’s past years and his future peril. The titular prisoner, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), introduces a new moral ambiguity which exposes the HP epic as a metaphor for totalitarianism and racism. The books and movies’ magic never became more meta than when it asked its young wizards to funnel their happiness into the Patronus spell—a weapon against wraith-like spiritual parasites that miraculously passed a PG rating. Those scenes alone confirm Potter as an eternal pop culture emblem for hope in the face of seemingly hopeless futures.

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