Let’s make one thing clear, right away: I do not have an anti-Harry Potter bias. When you’ve missed out on some major, omnipresent cultural force like the Harry Potter movies and books, the assumption tends to be that there’s a knee-jerk, reactionary reason for it—whether elitist, obnoxious, or both, the takeaway from the average person is, “How the flying fuck have you avoided [X]?!” Whether it’s the MCU or Charlie Brown TV specials, admitting your ignorance is a special kind of way to open yourself up to vitriol in the social media age.
The reason for my never giving the Harry Potter movies a chance was more due to just how universally accepted they are, rather than some misguided stance against an especially consumer-friendly franchise. (Okay, with the books, I admit to spitefully digging in my heels.) When I passed on the first few films, my thinking was simply, “These are huge, I’ll get around to them soon enough, maybe on TBS some random hungover Sunday afternoon.” Instead, the movies kept coming out, and I kept… not watching them. “After the next one,” was a common refrain in my brain.
But eventually, the series ended. A decade ago. And in all that time, I still had not managed to rouse myself from Potter-related torpor. Not a theme park, not a new series of films could rouse me from my blissful ignorance. And honestly, once J.K. Rowling revealed herself as a powerfully creepy bigot who apparently thinks imaginary witches are more womanly than actual trans women, I felt justified, as though I had dodged a bullet that would’ve required me to once more retroactively revise my feelings, Joss Whedon-style, about something I could’ve loved.
So when the 20th anniversary of the first film rolled around, I felt the guilt of the cultural critic stirring in my stomach. How had this momentous touchstone of our generation passed me by? How had I continually begged off watching something that had meant so much, to so many, without once capitulating? So it was that I found myself firing up HBO Max and beginning my journey: All the films, from 2001’s Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone to 2011’s Deathly Hallows—Part 2, would be watched in the course of (roughly) a week.
A few things immediately became clear: One, I was glad to have finally ticked this off the list of missed pop-culture giants. Two, binge-watching these movies was 100% the right move—I can’t even imagine trying to keep track of all the curses, wands, and tertiary characters over the course of a decade. I struggled to remember things that had happened two days prior (or two films prior, rather), so my heart goes out to any non-book readers who stuck with these movies during a ten-year period. Let’s do this.
Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
My first note, of the 25+ pages’ worth of material that I eventually drew on after viewing all eight films, simply says this:
And honestly, after sitting through Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone, I wouldn’t change a note of that seven-word review. My main takeaway of the first movie in this series? This shit is strictly for kids. While it felt Amblin-esque at times, evoking some of the wonder and magic of Steven Spielberg’s production house (director Chris Columbus may not be a master, but he is occasionally capable of summoning gee-whiz shots of magical fun), it is very broad and silly. I get why little kids would be into it: It’s pure fantasy escapism of the most indulgent kind.
The gist of it, so far as I can tell: Harry Potter is a very special kid because the dark magic lord Voldemort tried to kill him as a child and failed. So now, Harry will go to magic school at Hogwarts, learn to be a wizard, and grow up to eventually defeat Voldemort, right? Just spitballing here, but that sounds like a sensible narrative. Fair enough; after all, Voldemort murdered Harry’s parents and tried to kill him. Damn, Daniel (Radcliffe). It’s all very straightforward, and I can follow it easily, so two points for Gryffindor, there.
Questions: Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) is more or less insufferable, no? I hope she gets hit by the Quidditch ball, or whatever it’s called. The little blond bully (“Draco Malfoy,” apparently) may as well have “asshole” stamped on his forehead—not exactly the subtlest of pint-sized villains. Speaking of which: Does everyone just think House Slytherin is evil? It is very confusing that they would paint one of the four grand wizarding houses as nothing but shitheads, yet here we are.
The basic plot is straightforward, as we watch Harry slowly uncover the danger against him in the form of Defense Against The Dark Arts professor Quirinus Quirell (who is keeping lil’ undeveloped Voldemort safe in the back of his head), but holy hell, the subplots. There are unicorns, mirrors, and a whole host of distracting nonsense that helps drag this movie past the two and a half hour mark, and they mostly bored the shit out of me. If this is what the Harry Potter movies are like, I’ve made a huge mistake.
Let’s talk about Quidditch.
Not because I want to, mind you, but because Quidditch sucks so bad, it’s almost stupefying. If I had to guess, I would assume that either J.K. Rowling has never watched sports, and therefore has no understanding of what makes them interesting; or she has watched a lot of sports, fucking hates it, and invented Quidditch as a means of undermining the entire medium by making it look as pointless and ill-conceived as an entire ignorant crusade against basic human rights.
After a lengthy, and deeply boring, introduction in the first movie, we learn the only rule of Quidditch that matters: Namely, the entirety of the game can be rendered null and void by one person who has nothing to do with any of it, and instead just chases a flying gold ball, completely independent of everything else happening. So, yeah: We have to watch yet another game in this film. If you suspect that, once more, the entire match is made pointless by Harry catching the golden snitch, congrats! You get how lame Quidditch is, too. (It’s made worse in this film, with groan-inducing lines like Draco’s “You’ll never catch me, Potter!”)
I wouldn’t have suspected Chris Columbus was capable of making a movie worse than the first Harry Potter film, but that’s exactly what Chamber Of Secrets accomplishes. (Also, the new first note: “2 hours and 40 fucking minutes?! Fuck youuuuuuu.”) The plot—someone is taking out muggle-born students, and Harry has to find the mysterious “chamber of secrets” at Hogwarts and find out what’s really happening (spoiler alert: It’s Voldemort, of course, operating under his given name “Tom Riddle” to lure Harry into a trap)—is once more mostly an excuse for a series of related and semi-related set pieces, only a few of which deliver.
There are so many parts of Chamber Of Secrets that blow, it’s not worth lingering over all of them—the way that, say, a sentient car comes to rescue Harry and Ron in the middle of a giant spider-infested forest, despite that car seeming to hate them in every other scene. The kids who are getting turned to stone left and right are thought to be victims of Harry, but despite this being a literal school of magic, it seems using a truth spell (or potion) is off limits, despite (or maybe because of) how quickly it would resolve this idiotic plot.
Also, can we discuss how Dobby, the House Elf, is the secret villain of this movie? He continually shows up, makes things a million times worse for Harry and impedes any progress, but somehow by the end of the film, we’re supposed to be Team Dobby? Fuck that guy; the only thing worse than Dobby is this movie’s continued use of magic as a catch-all afterthought to fix any problem. When Harry’s dying of his Basilisk wounds, a stupid bird cries on him and suddenly he’s cured, because—and I shit you not, this is the actual line—“Of course! Phoenix tears have healing powers!” What a happy coincidence!
This was a bad movie. I am regretting this project in profound ways.
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. This was the first Harry Potter movie to feel like an actual movie, and not like one of those old Wonderful World Of Disney hack jobs that used to run Sunday nights on ABC. Also, it turns out Hermione isn’t insufferable, but rather awesome instead? So far, that’s a much bigger surprise than any of the ostensible plot twists.
Oscar winner Alfonso Cuarón (Roma, Gravity) helmed this one, and it’s immediately obvious that someone with real talent has taken over behind the camera. The opening scene at the Durseley house feels different, with handheld cameras, all intimate and awkwardly close, making newly adolescent Harry seem too large for the space. (Although inflating his awful aunt like a body-horror balloon seems excessive; does she just float away to her death?)
Plus, the plot of Azkaban feels more mature—perhaps Rowling was coming into her own as a writer with this book? There’s an escaped madman named Sirius Black on the loose, and he’s coming for Harry. Or so we’re told—the reversals and fakeouts here all run smoothly and with clever execution, the better to accompany the growing complexity of both the characters and their outsized emotions. By the time Gary Oldman’s Sirius enters the picture (alongside David Thewlis’ excellent professor-but-also-a-werewolf, Remus Lupin—if only there was some clue in his name as to his true nature!), the whole thing feels engaging and rewarding.
Honestly, everything Cuarón does is an improvement. That madcap bus ride Harry takes early on, after running away from home? The Jeunet-meets-Gilliam influence is clear, and fun. The Dementors plaguing Hogwarts are creepy. (Plus, nothing more welcoming to students than an unsettling choral rendition of “Something Wicked This Way Comes” to celebrate their return.) Unfortunately, even Cuarón can’t make Quidditch entertaining. But more importantly…
WHY DID NOBODY TELL ME PRISONER OF AZKABAN IS A TIME TRAVEL MOVIE?!?! That should’ve gone above the title: “Harry Potter And The Awesome Time Travel Nonsense, more like.” Seriously, I am a sucker for time-travel shenanigans, and had I known those were the kind of shenanigans this movie was up to, I would have gotten around to it long ago.
I will say, however, this is also the beginning of the movies’ use of what I like to call “deus ex fill-in-the-blank.” Something completely inexplicable will be thrown in there, and you’re just supposed to roll with it, because magic. Still, whatever; it’s worth it, because these films are finally getting good. And if I’m not mistaken, this is the only one where Voldemort isn’t appearing as a villain during the climax.
By now, my hastily typed “fuuuuck youuuuuu” in response to seeing the next film’s length as it begins (2 hours 37 minutes, this time) is almost de rigueur. But imagine my elation at this film not beginning with another odious sequence at the Durseleys, but rather at the Weasleys’ house, where we soon see handsome Robert Pattinson joining them for an outing. “This is so fun!” I thought to myself. “It’s different, it’s strange, and they’re going to… wait… the Quidditch World Cup…”
Apparently, even wizards aren’t allowed to escape wearing idiotic novelty hats at sporting events. Revealing this outing to be a stupid Quidditch event was a rotten bait and switch, movie. I started cheering when the Death Eaters attacked and David Tennant turned the sky into a giant skull with a snake coming out of it. Kill that Quidditch, David Tennant! Kill it dead!
While this is arguably the most straightforward of all the films, plot-wise (it’s the Tri-Wizard Tournament, Harry gets magically entered for reasons unknown, and he spends the movie trying to win it while also figuring out who is behind the magical manipulation), it’s also the first time I really felt the seams showing in the story. Condensing a 636-page book into a movie is bound to be a tough ask, and in Goblet Of Fire, the severe editing harms character development.
Ron acts like a complete dick for wholly inexplicable reasons for the first hour. Everyone at school hates Harry because they think he cheated to get into the tournament, but Harry never really speaks up and says, “Um, I don’t want to do this, you assholes?” (And then, just as quickly, they’re all on his side.) The only part the movie really nails is the awkward beginning of sexual attraction and dating among the kids; Harry and Ron are gormless twits when it comes to girls, and it makes the narrative all the richer.
The competition basically allows the film to be structured around the set pieces of the tournament, which makes for a fun progression through the story, ending with the big reveal that Voldemort is reborn and ready to kick some ass (poor Cedric Diggory/Robert Pattinson, you burned too bright for this world). But again, the out-of-nowhere climactic save—in this case, deus ex ghosts of Harry’s loved ones. Still, there’s also Harry-besotted Moaning Myrtle, the scenery-chewing fun of Brendan Gleeson’s Mad-Eye Moody, and even a “no dragons were harmed in the making of this movie” notice during the end credits.
But also, in the “how the hell is this not more widely known” department: The school dance has a goddamned magical post-punk band play?! And along with singer Jarvis Cocker, Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood and Phil Selway are in the movie, playing in the band?! And the credits showcase a truly terrible song they wrote with Cocker for the film?! I’m going to go ahead and assume they named themselves The Kinky Wizards, after those obnoxious skate punks in High Fidelity.
I cannot recommend enough to anyone reading who, like me, has not seen these films yet: binge watch them. I would’ve been completely lost by the time Order Of The Phoenix rolled around, had I been forced to wait two years between films instead of one day. Harry’s PTSD, not to mention the copious references to things only briefly mentioned in earlier films, would have defeated me—much like how Bellatrix Lestrange defeats Sirius Black. (Ya burnt, Sirius!)
This is where these movies start to get really dark, and I am all in. You want the lighthearted nonsense of the first couple films? Please. Those movies are straight clown shoes. This is the good stuff. A worrying parable about the power of conservative tabloid media and how it fosters an environment of fascistic repression in which fear drives otherwise sensible people to support persecution of the most vulnerable in society? It may seem a little ironic in hindsight, given Rowling’s current positions, but it’s rich, meaty material for a teenage wizard movie.
This is the first film to showcase a clear antagonist for almost the entire running time, and Imelda Staunton makes a feast of Dolores Umbridge’s sneering cruelty. You already know things are going to get serious when Harry is transported to the top-secret Order of the Phoenix with Moody’s dire admonition, “Don’t break ranks if one of us is killed,” but to see the steady devolution of Hogwarts into a place of mistrust and fear is something to behold. At least poor Neville, usually the butt of every joke, finally gets a W, locating the Room Of Requirement and joining Dumbledore’s Army.
After Dumbledore is fired and Umbridge takes over (cue the “shit just got real” meme), it’s a nonstop rush to the finish line, and while it doesn’t all hang together smoothly (though the “deus ex friendship” is one of the least out-of-nowhere climactic saves), it’s bleak, and icy, and hard to love, which makes me a fan. Although, perhaps we didn’t need Hagrid to have a mentally challenged monster of a half-brother he keeps chained up in the forest?
I have questions.
Help me out here, because even bingeing these movies, I believe there are a few plot holes, and not of the “Oy, don’t worry about it, it’s magic!” variety. In general, this is very much an “in between” movie, without a great overarching narrative thread to hold it all together, outside of “Things are progressing toward the end, plus, Dumbledore has to die.” Still, it generally makes sense: Harry finds a magical book formerly owned by the “half-blood prince” that helps him advance, and the kids learn that Voldemort split his soul into seven horcruxes they must now find and destroy. With you so far, nerds.
But here’s the thing: Dumbledore insists that “everything depends upon” uncovering the true memory of what conversation took place between Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) and Tom Riddle long ago. Seems a bit presumptuous to assume that the fate of everything is riding on this one memory from Riddle’s past, Dumbledore, but okay. Harry pulls it off, and learns that Riddle wanted to learn how to create a horcrux. That’s the key to defeating Voldemort! Finding and destroying the horcruxes containing his soul! Great! Glad we finally uncovered the big secret!
Only, immediately after learning this, Harry casts a suspicious eye toward Dumbledore. “That’s where you’ve been going,” he says. “Hunting horcruxes.” And Dumbledore is like, yeah, I have, they’re the key to defeating our enemy. What? If you were already hunting them, Dumbledore—if you already knew that’s what we needed—then why the hell did you make such a production of unlocking a memory that just tells you what you already knew? This is driving me bananas; someone, please explain what I’m missing.
That’s not the only odd moment: After a magic fight where Harry nearly murders Draco, they make a big production of hiding the half-blood prince’s book so that no one can ever find it again. Why? It didn’t seem to have any bearing whatsoever on that fight—at least, none that was effectively explained. This is the kind of thing that makes me almost wish this were a Game Of Thrones-style series, rather than a film franchise; I suspect these connections would be clearer with time to unpack them.
Still, there’s a lot to like in The Half-Blood Prince. Snape becomes a really sympathetic character (at least, to those of us for whom it seems pretty damn obvious that he’s some sort of deep-undercover agent for Dumbledore, which everyone but Harry apparently understands), and there are finally a few moments where Draco doesn’t come across like a one-note cartoon character. Plus, everyone starts hooking up. Hormones-ium Leviosa! Oh, but R.I.P. Dumbledore, I guess. At least his death felt significant, unlike the one at the end of…
Fucking Dobby? Really? Don’t get me wrong, this movie works overtime to try and create a far superior impression of the elf than the one left by Chamber Of Secrets. He gets several hero moments during the several minutes of screen time he’s allotted, from freeing everyone to delivering some magical beatdowns on his former masters. But to treat his death as something on par with Dumbledore? This little weirdo who was awful right up until the moment these movies needed him to be cool? Get outta here.
But trying-too-hard death scenes aside, I get why a lot of people consider this to be one of the weaker installments in the series. It’s long, meandering, and almost overwhelmingly downbeat, more depressing road trip than hero’s journey. Yet those elements are precisely what I responded to, as someone who watched the first two films mostly wishing I were anywhere else. Hermione literally erasing the memory of herself from her parents’ lives? That’s hardcore as hell.
This movie does not fuck around. Things are bad, and it wants you to know that. Hell, Mad-Eye Moody dies offscreen, and we just move on. The Ministry Of Magic is overthrown by Voldemort’s henchmen—the equivalent of the January 6 coup attempt succeeding, in other words—and everyone has to continue living their lives as though the world didn’t just collapse. The bad guys win, in a way, throughout this film. Yes, Harry and Hermione (with some help from Ron) eventually figure out how to track down and destroy more of the horcruxes, but it feels, appropriately so, like a fool’s errand. “Maybe we should just stay here, Harry,” Hermione says of one safe place they visit. “Grow old.” A fair point.
But when it does rouse itself from the doldrums (entertaining doldrums, in my opinion), some of its action sequences are among the series’ best. Raiding the Ministry to steal the horcrux Umbridge keeps around her neck is thrilling, and even though I was mostly confused by the visit with Bafilda Bagshot (Hazel Douglas)—she’s an old friend of Dumbledore’s, but is now Voldemort’s snake?—it provided maybe the only effective jump scare in the franchise, and was tense as hell throughout. Maybe that’s why the film worked so well for me: The entire time, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop in every scene.
The ending was rushed, and treating Dobby’s death like it was on par with any of the long-running characters felt ridiculous, but even when I just had to throw up my hands and hold on for the ride during the climax, it was nervy and compelling. Besides, the long build-up felt apropos for what’s to come.
It seems unlikely that it would even be possible to make it through the seven prior films and not have the payoff be at least moderately satisfying. Spending this much time with characters—and watching the actors literally grow up onscreen over the course of a decade—is undeniably affecting. (Just ask Boyhood.) So when I hit play on the last installment of the series, I was primed for some emotional waterworks.
Surprisingly, I mostly didn’t get them. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy Part 2—far from it. From the raid on Gringotts Bank to the Assault On Precinct 13 showdown at Hogwarts, where Voldemort and his minions do their best to level the place, the movie begins at a frenzied pace and almost never lets up until Voldemort crumbles into ash. And my boy Neville? Full circle hero time! He delivers the blow that basically wins the day; he should be getting monuments in his image, or at least a statue of equal or lesser value to Harry Potter’s.
Plus, I was glad the horcrux issue was resolved. The previous two movies both messed up the numbers—several times I would shout at the screen, “What do you mean, only three left? You’ve only found three! Who taught you math?” But learning that Harry himself was a horcrux made up for some of that confusion. (Some.) And while I tend to roll my eyes at “You’re dead if you want to be, just step into the light” scenes—which only ever exist so the hero can say, “No thanks, my work here isn’t done”—at least Spirit Dumbledore got to be playful.
And then it ends. With a snake beheading and wands unleashing CGI light shows, as it should be. (Bellatrix being killed by Ron’s mom was unexpected.) By the time that “20 years later” epilogue tried to extract some tears, I was mostly just satisfied; so much of those first two movies, along with the current behavior of Rowling, made me worry this wouldn’t be fun. Instead, I once again confronted the old “50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong” principle, an Occam’s Razor in which, when something is fiercely beloved by tons of people, there’s usually a reason.
Harry Potter isn’t just escapist fantasy nonsense; it’s a deeply realized world that uses its stories to say something profound about How We Live Now, and what it means to be a good person in a bad world. Those are lessons that endure, and immersing yourself in a wondrous (and yes, escapist) world of magic and dreams—no matter how god-awfully cornball that sounds—is an ideal delivery systems for such concepts, especially when you’re a kid just trying to figure out who you are. As long as you’re not Draco; last-second turn toward the light aside, that dude sucks.