Updated: Oct 29, 2020
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE 8 ORIGINAL HARRY POTTER FILMS
In 1997, J.K. Rowling opened the doors to a new world when she began the tale of an 11-year-old boy who finds out he is a wizard. As fans began to flock to the fun & mysterious series, none could have imagined how intricate, dark, and groundbreaking the series would become over its seven story-arcs. Though there are some changes the book-lovers may quarrel over, the film adaptations of the series did not disappoint, and only seemed to open the universe to more viewers through a new medium.
The Harry Potter series has certainly earned its status as fantasy royalty, creating some of the best selling books & highest-grossing movies of all time, and revolutionizing the way fiction is adapted into film. Every fan has their opinion on which movies they enjoy & rewatch the most, and which are not able to stack up with the others. Each of the films of this iconic series is, of course, great in its own respect, and it is important to note that even the films that are lower on this list still hold a place in the hearts of fans, and only seem to fall short when compared to the others.
8. The Half-Blood Prince
The penultimate arc of the Harry Potter story, the main purpose of The Half-Blood Prince seems to be to set the stage for the events of The Deathly Hallows. For example, much of this film is focused around building up Severus Snape as a main player in the war to come, and ending Albus Dumbledore’s life within his intricate plan. Though these are necessary developments for pivotal arcs of the series, it is not until The Deathly Hallows that we truly understand Snape’s motives/loyalty nor the reason for Dumbledore’s death. We also spend much of the movie watching the romances between both Harry & Ginny and Ron & Hermione bloom so that they can properly play-out in the final film. In fact, much of the movie is actionless until the final forty-five minutes in order to focus on these romances as well as introduce the mystery of Horcruxes, both of which set the stage for the seventh installment rather than paying-off within this film.
In addition, the film brushes aside many of the minor yet interesting details in order to keep the film focused on the more important plot-points. Though Severus Snape is a pivotal part of the story, the reveal that he is “The Half-Blood Prince” is a bit anticlimactic, and the explanation behind the name is not touched upon at all. In addition, we are left confused about Dumbledore’s encounter with the Horcrux ring, and its connection to the ever so important Resurrection Stone.
Though he is still a looming presence, The Dark Lord does take more of a back seat in this film in order to let other characters/villains such as Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape have their time to develop in the spotlight. This is a bit refreshing after Voldemort plays such a heavy role in the prior two films, but it does leave the final act a bit stale. After the death of Dumbledore (a solid scene in itself), there is not much to see in this final “battle” other than Harry chasing after Snape and the Death Eaters in anger, certainly a step down compared to some of the more riveting finales within this series. In fact, unlike most of the other Harry Potter films, the standout sequence in The Half-Blood Prince happens a bit earlier in the movie: when Harry and Dumbledore go Horcrux hunting.
7. The Deathly Hallows Part 1
Though Part One of The Deathly Hallows is a great start to an amazing finale, it is difficult for just a beginning to contend with the other stellar films of this series. There is certainly much to be praised in this movie such as the beautifully animated & narrated story of the three-brothers, the ministry heist, the quarrel in Malfoy Manor, and the death of Dobby the House-Elf (perhaps the most heartbreaking scene of the entire series).
The film is also surprisingly fast-paced and action-packed for something that is just the first part of a two-part arc, starting with the early action-sequence of transporting the “many” Harry Potters from privet drive to the Weasley’s Burrow (resulting in the death of Mad-Eye Moody & Hedwig). The movie also does a great job of exhibiting the peril that looms over the three main characters as they begin their Horcrux search while having danger meet them at nearly every turn. However, watching the locket Horcrux causing each of the three protagonists to act out of character (culminating in Ron abandoning the group just to come back) gets a bit frustrating for the audience. Still, there are some great character moments between the group that solidify their friendships (and the romantic connection between Ron & Hermione) as we enter into the final film. Though there is much to love in this film, the fact that the movie finishes with a clearly unfinished arc (which is admittedly the nature of this film), makes it tough for the movie to stack up with the others.
6. The Order of the Phoenix
When The Order of the Phoenix starts, we see Harry is a bit of an outcast who, along with Dumbledore, is distrusted by the Ministry of Magic and some of the other Hogwarts students. This leads to the entrance of the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge. Perhaps the most hated character in the series (including Voldemort), Umbridge’s reign of terror over Hogwarts is a great struggle to watch as we wait for The Dark Lord himself to arrive. Showing the questionable role of the Ministry highlights the complexities of the Wizarding World and causes Harry and the other students to grow stronger as they have to overcome an internal Hogwarts threat prior to facing their ultimate enemy.
Where this movie truly excels is showing what a powerful wizard Harry has become over the last few movies. When Umbridge fails to teach the students Defense Against the Dark Arts, many of them turn to Harry, and (though he is reluctant at first) the audience is able to watch Harry emerge as an inspirational leader. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of this movie is watching all of Harry’s friends (including Neville, Luna, and Ginny) fight together against the impending darkness using all that The Chosen One has taught them. However, as the final act ensues, it becomes clear that the students have just been lured into a trap, and it is a bit of a let down to see the young characters we’ve just watched come into their own need to be saved by the more experienced adults.
The final battle, however, is one of the best of the entire series with many different levels to it: students vs Death Eaters, Order of the Phoenix members taking on old enemies, and a one-on-one fight between Voldemort and Dumbledore. In the midst of all of this, Harry watches as his godfather, Sirius, is murdered by Bellatrix. This finale is one filled with action and emotion, and ends with Harry on the brink of losing himself when Voldemort enters his mind, until he is again able to prove his strength as well as the power of friendship. However exciting, some of the details surrounding this final battle are a bit underdeveloped, including the importance of the prophecy, the Department of Mysteries, and the “Veil” Sirius falls into upon death. Because they are rushed and vague, all of these aspects seem shoehorned into the plot (once Umbridge is defeated) in order to create a compelling final act.
5. The Sorcerer's Stone
The one that started it all, The Sorcerer’s Stone, introduced audiences as well as Harry himself to the magic and whimsy of Hogwarts and the Wizarding World. Fans are almost as excited as Harry early in the movie as we meet Hagrid, break-away from the borderline-abusive Dursleys, learn about Hogwarts and its four houses, and watch as a young Harry meets his lifelong friends. We are also able to learn more about Hogwarts alongside the characters, as Harry, Ron, and Hermione explore the intricacies of the school (such as the trapdoor and the Mirror of Erised) and satisfyingly task themselves with protecting the Sorcerer’s Stone when they are brushed aside by their elders. And of course, every fan loves watching Harry become a seeker as a first-year and swallow the snitch in his first Quidditch game.
Even after an entire year of Hogwarts, however, it’s safe to say that neither the fans nor Harry knew what was in store for the next six. The Sorcerer’s Stone takes a much lighter tone than the rest of the films, as Harry and his friends are very young at the time and their knowledge of magic is limited. Because of this, the movie takes a different approach in its final act, where the protagonists take on challenges as they progress closer and closer to the Sorcerer’s Stone. Though Harry, Ron, and Hermione each prove their wit and Gryffindor bravery throughout these challenges, it is ultimately Lily Potter’s love charm that saves Harry when he comes face-to-face with Voldemort (attached to Professor Quirrell’s head) rather than anything Harry himself does. This makes the victory, though satisfying, feel a bit undeserved for the protagonist.
The Sorcerer’s Stone is an undeniably phenomenal introduction to the series, Hogwarts, and the Wizarding World. However, the tone of the film forces the danger to feel much less threatening than the rest of the series. Still, it is always enjoyable watching Harry, Ron, & Hermione get themselves into trouble and attempt to solve their first mystery. Ultimately, though it may not be on the top of this list, this introduction will always hold a special place in the hearts of fans.
4. The Chamber of Secrets
The second installment of the Harry Potter Series, The Chamber of Secrets serves as a bridge between the lighter introduction seen in The Sorcerer’s Stone and the dark & precarious nature of the rest of the franchise. One reason The Chamber of Secrets stands out amongst the other films is because it is able to capture the youth and innocence of the characters, while still putting them in a more dire situation than before. In fact, the danger faced in The Chamber of Secrets leaves Hogwarts on the brink of closing, and it falls into the hands of Harry to step-up when the school’s fate is uncertain.
Another standout aspect of this film is the way it is able to revisit the past of Hogwarts & The Dark Lord while also incorporating it seamlessly into the plot of the film. By propping Tom Riddle (a mere “memory” of a younger Lord Voldemort) as the main antagonist, it is able to relate to the overall premise of the Harry Potter series, while also providing an original & formidable antagonist thus biding time for the physical Lord Voldemort to return. However, this twist at the end that Voldemort (in some form) was the mysterious player pulling all the strings throughout the movie is a bit reminiscent of The Sorcerer’s Stone. Still, the final act is surely a riveting one, that sees Harry & Ron entering into the infamous Chamber of Secrets with the fraudulent Professor Lockart, and pits Harry against both Tom Riddle & the Basilisk in order to save Ginny Weasley. This fight that ensues has Harry using his own devices and bravery (with some help from Dumbledore & Fawkes the Phoenix) in order to stand against his foes, which makes this victory feel a bit more earned than that of The Sorcerer’s Stone.
Aside from the final act, there is much throughout the film that serves to expand the mechanics of the Wizarding World and the lore of Hogwarts: Harry & Ron’s run-in with the Whomping Willow, the flashbacks of Tom Riddle framing Hagrid, the Polyjuice Potion sequence, and the introduction of the animosity between pure-bloods and mud-bloods. It is also arguably the film that most successfully establishes the connection between Harry & Ginny, which is left seemingly untouched until The Half-Blood Prince. And of course, who doesn’t love the real star of the film, Dobby the House-Elf, and his “freedom by sock” at the end of the film.
3. The Prisoner of Azkaban
The Prisoner of Azkaban marks a new era in the Harry Potter franchise, where the main characters don’t feel like children anymore, the problems expand beyond Lord Voldemort, and the tone takes on a new level of darkness. Not to mention the new, darker actor portraying Albus Dumbledore. This stark difference from the first two installments is both a blessing and a curse, as it takes the story to a whole new cinematic level & sets the stage for the horrors to come in the rest of the series, but separates the film from the whimsical nature many fans came to adore in The Sorcerer’s Stone & The Chamber of Secrets. Ultimately, these changes are a necessary development in the overall plot of the series as the magic gets more complex and Harry gears up to face the immense horrors of the Wizarding World.
The film initially takes on a bit of a slower pace, attempting to focus on the dementors and the connection between James Potter & Sirius Black. Even with the focus on these plotlines, both the nature/purpose of the dementors and the history of the gang that created the Marauder’s Map & their ability to transform into animals is still a bit underdeveloped and unclear. However, the entrance of Remus Lupin as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is certainly a welcome one after the failures of the previous two professors, and is a great way to bring more complicated magic (such as the Patronus) into the forefront for the first time.
Though the first half of the film is on the slower side, the waiting is more than justified in the second half. From the moment Hermione punches Malfoy, The Prisoner of Azkaban takes off into a whirlwind, where Harry learns that Sirius was framed by Ron’s rat (Peter Pettigrew), attacks Professor Snape in the Shrieking Shack, and watches a face-off between Sirius (turned into a dog) and Professor Lupin (turned into a werewolf). This in itself could serve as a solid final act, but what really drives home the greatness of The Prisoner of Azkaban is its handling of what seems to be the achilles-heel of many fantasy franchises: time travel.
What often serves to complicate and tarnish the continuity of other series is incorporated masterfully by J.K. Rowling in The Prisoner of Azkaban, further heightening its status amongst all other fantasy films. The “linear” time travel used in this film (where characters who travel back in time have already affected the timeline that they experienced the first time around) is a phenomenal way to save Sirius & Buckbeak and address a complicated mechanic of the Wizarding World, while also serving as a stellar final act. It is astounding to watch Harry & Hermione manipulate the events that transpire around their past selves, while also receiving answers to questions laid out just scenes prior. We are also able to see not only the physical resemblance between Harry & James Potter, but we witness Harry’s power as he fills what he believes is his father’s shoes by producing a full Patronus. In the end, although Harry has some success in freeing Sirius & Buckbeak, Pettigrew ultimately escapes and Harry loses out on a life with his godfather, which, unlike the first two movies, sets the tone that our protagonist will not always win the day.
2. The Deathly Hallows Part 2
The finale of the Harry Potter series, The Deathly Hallows Part 2 serves its purpose as a final act that not only excites fans from start to finish, but also eloquently concludes the mysteries and character arcs set out by the first seven installments. The movie sets its action-packed tone from the get-go, beginning with the Gringotts bank heist and quickly moving the main characters to Hogwarts in order to face their final foe. As soon as the main-trio enters the school, we are able to see the beacon of hope Harry has become for the students as they welcome him with open arms and step-up to assist him in his Horcrux hunt.
From that moment forward, the movie enters all-out war mode, beginning with a stellar scene where Harry confronts Snape, the new Headmaster, and McGonagall steps up to protect The Chosen One (while Snape sneakily takes out the Death Eaters while fleeing). Then, the final show-down that fans have been waiting for culminates in the heart-wrenching Battle of Hogwarts, where every character who remains takes on the onslaught of enemies while Harry, Ron, and Hermione continue their quest to destroy the Horcruxes. The battle sequence is impeccable, and continues to drive the plot forward while also delivering intense action and painful character deaths, justifying its suspenseful build-up. When the battle comes to a pause, you would expect to be able to take a breath, but we are instead hit rapidly with some gut-wrenching scenes to close off series-spanning character-arcs: Snape’s death & the revelation of his love for Lily Potter, the explanation of Dumbledore’s master plan, and Harry’s realization that he is a Horcrux and must lay down his life. Though these are the least action-packed scenes of the film, they are some of the best of the whole series, solidifying Snape as a phenomenal character and bringing Harry to a new level of hero.
One extremely important plot-point that the film seems to struggle with is the reason Harry is able to survive his encounter with Voldemort’s killing curse. Even after we receive a proper good-bye scene with Albus Dumbledore, which contains a bit of exposition, Harry’s survival is still left seemingly unclear. In fact, it was ultimately Lily's charm living through the blood that Voldemort took from Harry years prior that allowed the protagonist to survive, rather than the fact Harry was a Horcrux (an explanation left untouched by the film). Still, we get another extremely satisfying and justified action sequence that follows, containing some of the best moments in the series: Harry’s final faceoff and the defeat of Lord Voldemort, Neville destroying Nagini with the Sword of Gryffindor, and Molly Weasely saying “not my daughter you BITCH” before murdering Bellatrix.
The Deathly Hallows Part 2 is able to serve as a great final-act of a two-part story, as well as an absolutely stellar ending to the entire series and phenomenal action movie within itself. The film not only delivers on the excitement promised in the previous films, but also takes the moments in-between to gracefully close character & romantic arcs and weave in important aspects from the previous installments (such as Polyjuice Potion, The Chamber of Secrets, & The Room of Requirement). In addition to the skimped explanation of Harry’s survival, however, another underdeveloped aspect of this film lies within its title, the Deathly Hallows themselves.
Though the Resurrection Stone delivers a final good-bye with Harry’s deceased loved ones, and the Invisibility Cloak has played its part in previous films, The Elder Wand is the only Hallow that plays a significant role in the plot of the film and the fight against Voldemort. This, of course, does not do much to tarnish such a great finale, but is still worth mentioning. Another reason this film does not top our list is because, though it is a near-perfect finale and serves its purpose extremely well, it is still only half of a full story arc.
1. The Goblet of Fire
The Goblet of Fire continues and builds upon the dark tone and sense of looming danger established in The Prisoner of Azkaban, while still offering a structure that allows for fun action sequences consistently throughout the film. The film opens on a strong note, where we are able to go within Harry’s dream to get a sense of the peril to come, see the expanse of the Wizarding World with the Quidditch World Cup, are introduced to two major characters in Cedric Diggory & Viktor Krum, and receive an early action-sequence when the Death Eaters attack and leave the Dark Mark. This opening is certainly a welcome change from the repetitive Dursley sequences of the other films, and sets the pace for a consistently engaging story.
The Triwizard Tournament structure of this film gives it a reason to have action sequences throughout its run that are enthralling but also make sense within the plot, rather than waiting until the final act as many of the other films do. In fact, out of the three challenges themselves, the final is perhaps the least interesting, as the first two offer more dynamic sequences while also exhibiting mythical creatures we have barely encountered prior. Throughout all of them, however, we see Harry’s bravery and empathy, as he continuously prevails while also putting the well-being of others ahead of winning. Though Ron is as annoying as ever, the scenes in between challenges offer a relatable story of friendships tested and romantic relationships blooming. In addition, though nearly all Harry Potter films include a sense of mystery, figuring out who put Harry’s name in the Goblet of Fire casts its shadow over the entire film, and plays out beautifully as the film progresses.
When the master-plan culminates and lands Harry & Cedric in a graveyard, the pay-off is spectacular. As Cedric falls at the hands of Wormtail & Voldemort in the blink of an eye and Voldemort returns to his true form, the danger feels more real than ever before. However, the manner in which Voldemort “comes back” (a pivotal moment in the series), feels brushed over in an instant, and is certainly a weaker point of the film. Still, watching Harry in his first high-stakes duel against the Dark Lord while his deceased loved ones return for a moment is both riveting and beautiful. The revelation that Voldemort’s loyal follower, Barty Crouch Jr., was impersonating Mad-Eye and pulling the strings continues this excitement even past the final battle, pulling the entire movie together flawlessly. Ultimately, The Goblet of Fire is the heart of the Harry Potter series, and conveys a sense of intense peril & fear as it brings Voldemort to life and teaches us about the villain and his followers, while also offering one of the most fun and mystery-filled plots that keeps viewers engaged the entire time.
Ranked by Nick Mandala & Jake Zall
Written by Nick Mandala
Edited by Jake Zall