I have seen the Harry Potter films before—it’s currently a legal requirement for British citizens—but long enough ago that most of the twists and turns that weren’t announced on banners suspended over the motorway have completely slipped from memory. With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them released worldwide on November 18 this simply cannot do.
Yes, (according to my editor) it really is the perfect time to dive back into the world of Harry P and his magical wizarding chums. And for a whole 19 hours and 39 minutes too! Oh, this’ll be “fun”! So, let’s crack out the DVDs and make sure I don’t waste needless time by watching things like credits or my life flash before my eyes. Onward!
Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone – 6:00 am
And so we begin in fair Privet Drive, where we lay our scene. Two weirdo beardos and a crotchety old woman are gabbling nonsensically under a streetlamp in a typical English town. So far so magical. But soon (not too soon) we’re off to Hogwarts!
Actually, I’d forgotten just how much Chris Columbus sets up prior to the start of term. We get a really good amount of backstory in the Muggle world to establish just how awful the Dursleys are—Vernon’s favourite day is Sunday fer chrissakes—and how downtrodden Harry is. So when we reach Hogwarts or even Diagon Alley the magic feels, well, magical.
The living paintings, moving staircases and ample portion sizes are all genuine “woah” moments. OK, so the achievement system is all off (minus five house points for going after a troll and voiding the school’s insurance policy, but minus 50 points for wandering school grounds without permission?) but I can look past that; I’m full of wonderment. And even when things really get going and a trio of 11 year-olds manage to make their way through a series of engaging videogame levels and thwart the most evil headfetus in history, I’m willing to buy in.
MVP: Robbie Coltrane, if only for ensuring that “yer a wizard, ‘Arry” would be 2001’s most-spoken phrase.
Rating: 4/5 – Yeah it’s for kiddies, but Columbus does a genuinely impressive job with the masses of building blocks on his hands and still finds room for a neat little adventure and flashes of U-appropriate darkness.
Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets – 8:41 am
Say, The Philosopher’s Stone did a really great job of building Harry’s world, so let’s use the next instalment to really push onwa- oh, what’s that? You want to pretty much hit the exact same marks? OK…
Other than Kenny B’s foppish Gilderoy Lockhart swanning about stealing hearts and scenes, there’s little in Secrets that I haven’t just watched. Misery, magic, Quidditch, feelings, adventure, scene. It’s a little dull. In Secrets‘ favour, the pre-Hogwarts stuff is fantastic yet again thanks, largely, to a vamping Jason Isaacs looking like he’s auditioning to be a backup dancer for Bros. On the flipside, his son stomps about like a hammy panto dame spitting out “Potter” like he forgot to stop reading the script at the right point and tripped into Harry’s name on the next line.
Ultimately though, the most important thing in Chamber of Secrets is not that it holds a rather important diary but that it features Ron saying “bloody hell” for the first time, gurning all the while like a melting postbox. That’ll never get old!
MVP: Shirley Henderson. Though 36(!) at the time of playing Moaning Myrtle, she’s still probably the most convincing student in the whole film.
Rating: 2/5 – Chamber of Secrets is weirdly unsure of what tone to take at the best of times and ends with such a cheery shrug that it renders the achingly long plot (somehow it clocks in at just under three hours) a complete waste of time. I know a little about wasting time. Oh, and Richard Harris exclaims “All exams have been cancelled!” Puh-lease.
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban – 11:10 am
Now we’re getting to the good stuff. Chris Columbus has moved aside for Alfonso Cuarón, a sentence I find myself fact-checking more than once considering how bizarre it now seems, and everything… works. From the beginning scenes with Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris) popping up as Vernon Dursley’s sister, to a demented night bus (insert satirical “what’s new?” joke here), Cuarón just seems to get Potter.
The Potterverse always seems to assume audiences are familiar with the previous instalments (or had to accompany younger audience members and thus don’t matter) so it never really bothers with filling in the details. Yet when it comes to Azkaban, it’s not an issue. This is the Potter gateway drug; it’s some Goldilocks-level just right-ness, helped by the cast’s rush through puberty, decent source material, and primo draft picks like David Thewlis and Gary Oldman propping up scenes wherever they can. It’s basically my protein bar pick-me-up. Is that a marathon thing? I’m watching all the HP films back-to-back—obviously I’ve never run a marathon.
MVP: David Thewlis. He’s responsible for some of the best scenes in the film and is just so damn likable.
Rating: 5/5 – Showing us the way darkness comes, Azkaban is a what-could-have-been glimpse into how Potter works when the parts all fit together. A self-contained story that fits into the wider narrative seamlessly, buoyed by fantastic imagery and some great performances.
Harry P And The Fiery G – 13:15 pm
You know, we’re four films in now and I’ve no idea what Voldemort stands for. I haven’t even mentioned him yet because, apart from in Stone, he’s just kind of hovering around the edge of things. Yeah, we know he’s evil and wants things like world domination, immortality and a couple of Strepsils, but how does he actually attract followers? What’s his endgame? I’d expect only a shallow understanding in a 90-minute actioner that needs only a basic antagonist but I’ve been strapped in for over seven hours now and have got squat. Consider President Snow in The Hunger Games: there’s a member of the political elite exercising a personal philosophy to preserve “peace” and the political status quo. Voldemort? Well, I know his logo is a flaming skull with a snake coming out of its mouth. At no time does any Voldemort follower ask if they’re the baddies.
This term sees R-Patz, a talking lilac, a Bulgarian Henry Cavill and Our Harry entering into a wizarding sports movie to win a particularly shiny cup. Cuarón’s left to make some serious movies that don’t involve bespectacled wizards wrestling with mer-people or Jarvis Cocker singing “boogie down like a unicorn” but Potter first-timer Mike Newell manages to continue most of the good stuff from Azkaban and helps Ron add “piss off” and “you’re a right foul git” to his cutting teenage vocabulary. Christ on a barnacle! It all results in an occasionally messy, but always enjoyable, good time.
MVP: Fred & George Weasley – These guys are usually the best part of all the films, but they’re given more to do so I’m a happy chappy.
Rating: 4/5 – At times Goblet seems a little bit like a bottle episode with some Voldemort stuff tacked on, but it pulls itself together and ends with “everything’s going to change now, isn’t it?” Harry’s too polite to say “well, duh!” but the sentiment is there.
Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix – 15:32 pm
We open in a playground where Harry’s staring at a roundabout on the verge of going all Terminator 2. Then he’s chased by Dementors, whisked off to the Ministry of Magic and dumped back at school for a new year. Incidentally, it’s a nice something that we never see Harry attending Hogwarts the same way twice, especially as this time we’re introduced to the lovely, loopy Luna Lovegood. It’s all a little breather before the Age of Umbridge.
Imelda Staunton is just so damn good as a prissy lump of anthropomorphic bubblegum brought into oversee the school that whenever she’s onscreen, Phoenix’s subject matter never gets too miserable. Instead, we’re all united in a healthy bit of hate. Sure, it’s a little black-and-pinky-white but when is Harry Potter not?
And yet, with the exception of Umbridge’s office, things are becoming more and more identikit. When Sirius appears in the fireplace this time out, he does so as a fairly cheap overlay on the flames. Compare that to one film earlier, when Gary Oldman appears as a face crunching through the coals in a less literal but far more striking image. Ah-hmm.
MVP: Imelda Staunton (see above, see whole film)
Rating: 4/5 – This is probably a 3.5 really, but that’s just not the done thing here. Plus I’m feeling generous and sunlight-deprived.
Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince – 17:42 pm
With Umbridge gone and Jimmy Broadbent bumbling it up a storm it almost feels like we’re back to the old ways to begin with. There’s even Quidditch, a proper Potions lesson and a textbook “Bloody Hell!” Then things go south and we’re into sub-Skins level of angst as Ron gets popular and Hermione starts simpering. And all the while Harry tries to get himself groomed at the behest of Dumbledore, who’s now firmly in “Headmastering? IDGAF” territory.
Whether it’s a deliberate choice to engender the feeling of isolation or not, Hogwarts just feels less alive this time out. Yes, that could be me projecting my current status on proceedings but from a solitary Malfoy wandering corridors to a distinct lack of larger crowd scenes late on, it’s a little like director David Yates is content to sit back with most everything already built around him.
Most significantly, this is the film we find out about Horcruxes, a plot device so important that it has taken until two hours into the sixth film for the word to even be spoken. So it turns out Harry needs to go on a number of fetch quests to kill Voldemort’s soul? And Dumbledore knows of one nearby? Convenient! The ensuing Potter/Dumbledore field trip takes on the form of some bizarre drama exercise as Harry tries to get a babbling Albus to drink magical ouchie-water (success!) and then Malfoy—in full-on Nazi doctor mode—turns up to kill Hogwarts’ beloved headmaster (fail!). He doesn’t. Snape does.
MVP: Jim Broadbent. Unlike a few of the other British vets brought in to collect their paycheck and get out, Jim Broadbent’s Horace Slughorn is a fresh breath of tweedy air that does well to break up the malaise.
Rating: 3/5 – The Half-Blood Prince? More like The Half-Brood Prince. Amirite folks?
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 – 20:18 pm
We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
The first few moments of The Deathly Hallows set a genuinely upsetting tone for what remains of the series. Hermione literally erases herself from her parents’ memories, leaving Catelyn Stark and some guy I don’t recognise to live the rest of their lives with all their relatives asking “where’s Hermione?” only for them to go “who?” That’ll be awkward. Of course, this scene would mean a little more if we’d met them before or knew anything about them other than the fact they’re dentists but it’s still a pretty powerful moment… and one that is never mentioned again.
After that, Voldemort has the most intimidating board meeting since The Untouchables and gets ready to go a-killing. He starts with Brendan Gleeson, another big cheese scratched off to remind us that no, Dumbledore’s death wasn’t an anomaly.
And yet Part 1 is, and can only be, a relatively disappointing bit of padding. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments—the gang hanging out in the muggle world is something I’d happily have watched more of and it has a significantly affecting middle third—but it all descends into an overlong M&S commercial full of chunky knits and autumnal landscapes where each of the three characters passes around the baton of Most Irritating Character. As usual Ron wins, whines and wanders off. Ooh, that git.
MVP: I was going to give it to Emma Watson, but really it goes to the bladdy Great British countryside. Here’s to you, Berkshire, Yorkshire and Pembrokeshire! You done yerself proud, lads. Sorry, Emma.
Rating: 3/5 – At this point it’s just a case of me wanting things to pick themselves up and get on with it. If I’d had to wait eight months, I’d be genuinely frustrated. As it is, I’m satisfied loading in the final disc. Good puppet show though.
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 – 22:35 pm
“Previously on Harry Potter… ” – Wow, we get a mini-montage this time, though without those particular words spoken. Even though I’m still left counting Horcruxes on my fingers each time Harry says “this one’s the last,” it’s definitely something.
Hogwarts, for the final time, now better resembles a recently-liberated prison camp than a school. The Quidditch stands are burnt down, the students camp out by secret tunnels and the entire Slytherin House is thrown in the dungeons. So, what? The staff is fully aware that a quarter of their school is made up of potentially murderous dickheads? What is this, Eton? … Anyway, it’s either my failing eyesight or a directorial choice but the palette is browner than ever—that’s how you know things are real—until we get to the explosions! Hogwarts is under attack! Send in the rest of the anti-Voldemort forces—which seems to entirely consist of the Weasley family and a guy named Kingsley Shacklebolt.
The battle is suitably fantastical, though a little route one; I would have liked to see more batshit crazy spells than wand-based explosions but hey, maybe that’s just me. Genuinely, it’s all rip-roaring fun until the ceasefire and the only moment of the series that’s really hit me for six: the death of Fred Weasley. We’ve been with him and his twin since the start, way way back in the hours of 6am/days of 2001, so his death among a sea of redshirts is enough to make me feel something other than tired. Wearily, there’s a final showdown and, fittingly, the eternally reptilian Ralph Fiennes sheds his skin and then his bones and blood and stuff in a Dragon Ball Z–esque conclusion. Good triumphs over evil. Twas ever thus.
Suitably, there’s more a feeling of relief than anything else. After ten years, things have reached a deserved end and we’re left wi- what sweet merciful Christ is this? 19 years later. Harry, Ginny (who I always just assumed was a piece of scenery), Hermione, Ron and Malfoy are all given a chance to play dress-up at Kings Cross as they send their kids to Hogwarts. David Yates completes the double-twisting double-back only to break both legs and soil himself on the landing. What a way to send people out of the cinema after a decade.
MVP: Alan Rickman. The half-hearted hope for Academy Award recognition was never going to go anywhere, but Deathly Hallows: Part 2 highlights, above all, the man’s ability to play for the team. He’s a willing supporter when required to give little more than a languid put-down and a devastating scene-stealer when it finally, thankfully, falls to him to step up. A huge loss.
Rating: 4/5 – But only if you manage to block out those torturous last five minutes.
The world of Harry Potter has always been more about the former than the latter. It seemed to catch on for its universe and its supporting cast rather than its occasionally bland protagonists. That’s handy too, considering Radcliffe, Watson and Grint aren’t really an acting powerhouse (although the former two come on in leaps and bounds over the course of the series). I don’t know whether Fantastic Beasts will be a step outside the comfort zone too far but, for the first instalment at least, it doesn’t exactly look like it’ll share much with the HP we’ve seen other than a few knowing glances. Yet whether it‘s a success or not—and it’s all but guaranteed to make money wand over fist—I imagine we’ll be back at Hogwarts in some way soon enough. I’ll probably pay the place a visit, but… I might give it a few years before I go back.