The Harry Potter Movies Ranked
I read the first four Harry Potter books more than a dozen times, the fifth a “mere” ten or so, the sixth several, and the final a couple. This was all by the time I was 11 or so (the HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS novel was released in 2007), and by that time, it was quite clear that Harry Potter was my favorite book series. HARY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (1997) and THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (1998) taught me how to read, and when they were adapted into film, the movies quickly became mainstays in my house. I grew up with the Harry Potter series, both in book and movie form, and the corresponding growth of its central characters and increasingly mature themes and tones suited me quite nicely when I was an angsty (pre-)teen, thank you very much. Obviously, I was not alone, as the Harry Potter “brand” is now one of the most famous and beloved franchises, although that fever pitch of fandom may have peaked more than a decade ago, with the release of the final movie in the series…well, “Harry Potter series” proper.
But now, we’ve had cinematic extensions of “The Wizarding World” with the Fantastic Beasts movies. And J.K. Rowling developed weird offshoot facts about her universe before diving deep into the rabbit hole of transphobia and TERF-dom. Further criticism of Rowling’s original texts have also gained more airplay (I mean, really, why was the one Asian character named “Cho Chang?”). And you know what, I understand and agree with all of it, especially the repugnance of Rowling’s personal views. But I still wrestle with the art she created, the books that I loved so much and gave birth to what I think are mostly fantastic filmic worlds. Of course, these conversations about “separating the art from the artist” have been happening at the highest level for a number of years now, and I don’t know that I can quite articulate my relationship with Harry Potter. To some extent, I had grown past the books and movies before the more recent controversy surrounding the series and its creator, but those developments, plus the mostly abysmal Fantastic Beasts movie continuation of the franchise, have distanced me from stories that always made me feel included and whisked away to a beautiful slice of escapism. But it’s frankly difficult for me to divorce those feelings and I still very much enjoy the Harry Potter films. I’ve ranked the 11 entries, released over the 21 years from 2001 to 2022, below, so yes, I’ve included the Fantastic Beasts movies, even though they’ve come under the “Wizarding World” “cinematic universe” branding. But come on, they’re “Harry Potter movies,” even if the Boy Who Lived isn’t actually in them.
#11 — FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD (2018)
D: David Yates
You know, on top of her terrible rhetoric and the retrospective evaluation of the most problematic elements of her original works, Rowling is also directly responsible for the terrible direction her universe has been taken in. We should have known when she started tweeting about how wizards magic away their shit and such. But yes, the author has also written the stories and screenplays for the Fantastic Beasts movies, prequels centered on “magizoologist” Newt Scamander, the author of fictional text “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” The movies are set in the 1920s and explore a more global wizarding world than the academic-minded Harry Potter movies, but somehow, the Scamander story shifts from dealing with cool magic animals to emulating bad political thrillers. FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD is the nadir of anything Potter-related on screen, a mess of convoluted plot lines and a shift from the at least novel and nominally interesting premise of its predecessor, the first Fantastic Beasts. It’s visually dull, Johnny Depp is certainly the worst of the three actors to portray “wizard Hitler” Grindelwald (that shifting portrayal another aspect of the controversy that surrounds these movies), and the elements I liked best of the initial spin-off (namely, the titular fantastic beasts) are sidelined. THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD is a sad example of the capitalization on “proven IPs” (yuck) that the movie studios have been implementing for the past, oh, ten years or more, and a sobering display of the magic-sucking exports of such a process.
#10 — FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE (2022)
D: David Yates
The latest Fantastic Beasts/Wizarding World/Harry Potter movie and the impetus for this piece, FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE, will hopefully put the nail in the coffin for this particular subseries. A fourth and fifth movie are in initial planning stages, but rumor is that Warner Bros. may pull the plug on them depending on the critical and commercial success of this third installment, which at the time of this writing seems pretty middling. For my part, I do not like THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE. Although it is nominally better than THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD, it embodies many of its predecessor’s problems. Its plot is technically better understood, but only because as the movie itself puts it, there is no definite plan (so as to foil Grindelwald’s future sight, but c’mon, it almost feels like a cop out for a few ideas of disparate set pieces and moments). The good parts of Newt’s character, that is, the part where he interacts with a bunch of weird animals, is further put out as an afterthought, besides the bizarre creature at the center of the “wizard president” election. Rowling further draws comparisons between Grindelwald and the rise of fascism in Europe at the time the movie is set, but it’s so didactic and full of holes that it’s almost not worth recognizing. Mads Mikkelsen is a better villain than Depp, although the whole shadow of that replacement kerfuffle looms over the movie, and it’s regrettable that Katherine Waterston (mostly) didn’t come back and Dan Fogler is minimized even further. But overall, THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE is just boring, offering no major revelations for the nerds (I mean, Rowling said Albus was gay for Grindelwald years ago), and sticks to a bland mode of visual storytelling that is more lifeless than it is awe-inspiring.
#9 — FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (2016)
D: David Yates
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM came after the biggest gap between Harry Potter-sized movies; it released just over five years after HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS — PART 2. But somehow, at the time, it felt longer. Perhaps because the story of Harry Potter had been concluded in book form almost a decade earlier, and therefore because the idea of what could be done with the character and world had been percolating for some time before the final movie’s release. Whatever the reason, FANTASTIC BEASTS was not the incredible return to the Wizarding World it could have been, but in hindsight, it’s a pretty good movie in comparison to its abysmal sequels. Its premise and setting, a 1920s magical America, is given some life and verve by the characters and concepts introduced, especially the dynamic between Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and Muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). I think Fogler is a great asset to these movies; in fact, he’s perhaps the best part of them. Redmayne, on the other hand, has annoyed me with his performance; it feels like he’s affecting or caricaturing an autistic reading at times, but at others, he displays a light touch. Colin Farrell is also good as Grindelwald (albeit in disguised form, and representing the first of three “forms” the character takes because of production “difficulties” as noted above). The first Fantastic Beasts thankfully also accentuates the magical creature angle the most, but I still find the compatibility of the thrust of this subseries (political thriller with an evil racist genocidal maniac as villain) and professed angle (mythical animals and the sensitive guy who loves them) very strange. Nevertheless, FANTASTIC BEASTS, especially in retrospect, is a just fine expansion of the Wizarding World mythos, even if you still have to majorly suspend disbelief for a number of plot points and world-building concepts, as has always been the case with Harry Potter.
#8 — HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS — PART 1 (2010)
D: David Yates
Ah, we’re into the proper “Harry Potter” movies now. And as will become clear, I tend to prefer the earlier entries in the film series. Even still, I would say at this point that every one of the movies is good-to-great, and that is the case with HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS — PART 1. In keeping with that “great” early 2010s tradition of breaking every conclusion of an acclaimed (and profitable) series into two parts, the first part of the final Harry Potter story sets everything up…for the second part to truly satisfy. To that end, THE DEATHLY HALLOWS — PART 1 feels like the most dispensable of the “true” Harry Potter movies, although it is full of great and sad moments. By this time, the story had gotten more “grown up,” and that definitely appealed to me at the time. Even still, I am impressed by how the childlike wonder of the early books/movies was brought into more dangerous stakes. But these last few Harry Potter movies leaned even more into a “grimdark” aesthetic that I think was really started by THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, not helped by David Yates’ mostly undiscerning eye (who has now directed the most Harry Potter movies with seven) and the CG-fest that the action fantasy genre had then become. But these are mostly minor contextual details to explain THE DEATHLY HALLOWS — PART 1’s relatively low ranking; I think it’s still a good movie and an impactful introduction to a great ending.
#7 — HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007)
D: David Yates
I remember being so excited by how huge the ORDER OF THE PHOENIX novel was. And although earlier entries in the book series had already established darker, sadder, and more traumatic moments, the ending of this story truly segued the Harry Potter story into the endgame, where the “dramatic things happen in the boarding school” framework turned into true “the world is in danger” vibes. Anyways, the HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX movie represented this shift well, and perhaps it should be said at some point that the movies on the whole are in the upper echelon of faithful yet truly adapted adaptations. But because of that faithfulness, THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX also sinks lower on the list (it’s one of my least favorite books in the series as well). It’s hard for me to point to any one element, but maybe that’s because I feel like there’s just a lot going on in the story. Dolore Umbridge is a great villain and represents the encroachment of the adult world into the relative sanctity of Hogwarts, a theme I like. But in a cinematic sense, THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is a bit…blurry, perhaps a case not helped by Yates’ introduction to the franchise and the aforementioned trend to more elaborate computer effects.
#6 — HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS — PART 2 (2011)
D: David Yates
I don’t mean to make it sound like I hate Yates, although it is true that six of the seven movies he helmed are in the last six spots of this list. His stewardship of the Harry Potter film series was originally proficient enough, but he’s certainly a chameleon who works within a visual template. And that’s not always bad! But besides how he handled the darker themes and look of the later Harry Potter stories, Yates also oversaw the truly satisfying conclusion to the epic. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS — PART 2 echoes the feat that Rowling was able to pull off with the final book: it pulled a lot of threads together and resolved a violent and weighty conflict with high stakes payoffs, emotion, and heartfelt farewells.
#5 — HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (2005)
D: Mike Newell
I distinctly remember having a HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE Game Boy Advance game that was annoyingly difficult. Anyways, the movie on which it was based is tremendously better. Besides some aspects of THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, I feel like THE GOBLET OF FIRE is the movie that made many fellow HP fans my age feel like they were growing up, what with that final traumatic death. And I think it was a great narrative device, deepening the darkness of the series. Speaking of darkness: director Mike Newell (this is the only Harry Potter he directed) mostly works with the look that Alfonso Cuarón crafted for the third movie, albeit without that blue-grey filter Cuarón obviously loved. I suspect THE GOBLET OF FIRE is a number of Harry Potter fans’ favorite, whether it be movie or book. And I don’t know how to directly contradict that, because I do love it so. I love that Harry’s hair was getting longer as many young men’s was at the time (myself included), but that represented the shift in style from ‘90s-informed children’s fantasy to millennial young adult desires. THE GOBLET OF FIRE obviously isn’t my favorite Harry Potter movie, but here on in, the placements are definitely in close contention.
#4 — HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (2009)
D: David Yates
The exception to my trend of “I don’t like later Harry Potter movies as much as the earlier ones” is HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. I feel that it is the most visually awe-inspiring of the Yates’ pictures, and that’s mostly because of the sad, scary, and traumatic scenes that close out the story. I mean, spoilers for a very famous movie more than ten years after the fact: I cried when I read Dumbledore was dead. While I don’t reflect on that moment with the same amount of sadness today, I recognize it as the bold narrative evolution it was. It’s one thing to just kill off a bunch of primary characters, as the final Harry Potter movies did, and another to make them actually compelling and the losses felt. I feel like THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE was able to pull that off, and of course, the movie leading up to those closing moments is also very good, displacing the semi-routine that was still kind of present in THE ORDER OF PHOENIX in favor of a new level of stakes.
#3 — HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004)
D: Alfonso Cuarón
I’ve written a lot already about how the Harry Potter movies kept getting “darker” and how I’ve meant that both literally and thematically. But that really all started with HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN. Chris Columbus had already directed the first two installments of the series, so this was the first of a few handoffs as Alfonso Cuarón took the director’s chair. His instinct was to, of course, make things a little more unconventional, drawing out a gloomier aesthetic with that blue-grey filter I mentioned earlier. Things also get a little more scary in the story, and Gary Oldman’s performance as Sirius Black, for example, exemplify that beyond the pure visual palette. Michael Gambon was also able to admirably take over the role of Dumbledore from Richard Harris, who played the character a little more delicately, or maybe even “feebly.” But for all the ways that the third Harry Potter movie represented the end of a short initial era, not the least reason of which is because all of a sudden the kids looked less like kids and more like older teens (because they were; that’s the pesky thing with doing things with child actors over multiple years). In total, though, THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN was the perfect bridge into the CG-over-practical, ever-maturing wizarding world, rendered with a relatively distinct style by Cuarón.
#2 — HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002)
D: Chris Columbus
I’m unapologetic about my love for the first two Harry Potter movies, different as they are in style and tone from the movies to follow. At the time of each movie’s release, I probably would have said that I liked each one more than the last. But now, I can see Chris Columbus’ fantastical touch from a ’90s and even ’80s vein of fantasy filmmaking, leveraging some then-modern CG techniques, which look cheesy but still endearing today, in combination with eye-popping practical effects. I think certain aspects of the older, teenage characters’ lives are more compelling or relevant to me today, but there’s something about the terror inherent to HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS’ lurking villain that defies the expectation that the original movies were too kiddy. Indeed, they not only tap into the ‘80s/’90s style in looks, but also in approach to just what a “kid’s movie” can be, for children as well as adults. THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS deepened the lore and set up tantalizing arcs that would gain relevance in short order, but in terms of pure filmmaking, it’s also a constant delight and nostalgic joy.
#1 — HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (2001)
D: Chris Columbus
And yet, I come back to HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (or “Philosopher’s Stone” outside the United States; us Yanks don’t understand big words like that) as my favorite movie in the whole series. It’s a strange feeling, because there’s so much to enjoy and appreciate on a deeper level from its sequels. But ultimately, Columbus set the tenor with this incredible adaptation of an incredible book, one that is certainly simpler than subsequent installments, but not for lack of magic. The reveal of this wizarding world that was expanded to include and mean so much is still inspiring to this day in its purity, and the grandiosity with which it is unraveled is beautiful and fun. THE SORCERER’S STONE’s creature and magical visuals are, if not inherently realistic, a dazzling blend of plausibility and eccentric practical effects. The movie deservedly elevated an already celebrated series to even greater mainstream attention, indeed, at the highest level that something could gain mainstream attention. But THE SORCERER’S STONE will also always feel special and unique to me, an inviting, thrilling, and satisfying escape to a world of magic. For all that this series has become, for all that its creator has become (or indeed, probably always was), I will always love and find solace in the words and pictures of the Harry Potter universe.