Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), directed by Mike Newell

The Thespians: How perfect is Brendan Gleeson as former dark wizard hunter "Mad Eye" Moody? The answer is completely perfect. In a series filled with inspired casting, it may very well be one of the very best matches between an actor and his role. Then you have the pre-'Twilight' Robert Pattinson moping it up as Cedric Diggory and no film series with this many British actors could avoid at least one Dr. Who, so David Tennant can be seen as the traitorous Barty Crouch. Finally, there's Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort, the Most Evil Wizard In The World. Is casting Fiennes, best known for playing a psychopathic nazi officer in 'Schindler's List,' a little too obvious? Yeah. Probably. But who cares? Fiennes walks a fine line between truly terrifying and hammy and while Voldemort won't get a chance to truly shine as a villain until the next film, he certainly leaves a lasting impression.

The Magics: The more Harry learns about magic, the more useful it becomes. That may seem like a silly, obvious observation, but it's a key part of his growth as a character. With the "Gee Golly Wiz!" use of magic long gone, we can know see experienced witches and wizards using their art practically. In this world, magic is not about making rabbits disappear, it's about getting things done. It's a tool. It's a utility. It's a key component of daily living. People use it to get their jobs done, to travel and to take care of their homes and families. This entire series may be about magic, but the concept doesn't come to life until you realize how truly ordinary it is to everyone who uses it. That's why Arthur Weasley's obsession with Muggle technology is so endearing -- he can't fathom a computer in the same way we can't fathom a flying broomstick.

Accuracy to the Book: This may be where everything clicks into place, where the balance between faithful devotion to the books and cinematic invention find even footing. If Columbus' adaptations were a long nap and Cuaron's was a kick to the face, then Mike Newell's 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' is a long rest in a comfy chair while someone gives you a nice back rub. Although not as strong of a film as 'Azkaban,' part four strikes the perfect chord between slavish devotion and necessary restructuring, reshaping the plot into a fast paced thriller. The first couple hundred pages are dealt with in the first ten minutes and yet nothing is missed. Key aspects of the trials Harry faces as part of the Twi-Wizard Tournament are modified, but not so much as to lose sight of what they originally were. Characters and subplots are cut (farewell Hermione's campaign to free the house elves), but all of the information they supplied is dispersed amongst other characters. 'Azkaban' may have been the first great Harry Potter movie, but 'Goblet of Fire' is the first great Harry Potter screenplay.

Thoughts: Ah, 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,' AKA, the one with the terrible haircuts. I mean, just look at them. Look upon those follicles, ye Mighty, and despair!

Lousy of-the-moment hair styling aside, the fourth adventure of Harry Potter and his long suffering friends is an above average entry in the series, not as visually stunning or a clever as the third but certainly a dozen steps or so above the first two films. It is also the first film in the series to be directed by a British filmmaker and Mike Newell seems to bring a great deal of his personal schooling experience to the table, resulting in a Hogwarts filled with a lot of cold, abusive professors and an oddly angry Dumbledore. It may clash with the characters as established in the previous films, but it goes a long way to informing the story itself. For the first time, Harry is on his own, his friends can't help him and the world is a cruel, evil place filled with dragons that want to kill him and mutant wizards that want his blood so they can be reborn in the body of Ralph Fiennes. It's totally appropriate that the film ends with a character dead and the villain stronger than ever. The already sucky life of Harry Potter is only going to get much, much worse.

Although he's not an artist like Cuaron, Newell is a more than capable workman filmmaker and the result is a meat and potatoes thriller dressed in a Harry Potter costume. It's a film that does everything it needs to function properly: it moves quickly, it looks nice and none of the acting stinks. The fact that few sequences stand out as being particularly impressive is an annoyance but nothing stands out as being particularly turgid, so the universe balances out in the end.

'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' is a good film and one that I like very much, but the fact that I spend time in this review making fun of Daniel Radcliffe and Rubert Grint's haircuts rather than provide an incisive commentary on how well the film works should tell you everything you need to know. As far as the Potter films go, it's squarely middle of the road.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), directed by David Yates

The Thespians: What? Only two big name actors join the cast this time around? What a rip-off. Not to say anything nasty about Imelda Staunton and Helena Bonham Carter, both immaculately playing villains who couldn't be more different from one another, but I'm just used to about thirteen actors joining the cast each film. Anyway, if you want to know if a movie villain is actually worth a damn, you just have to ask a simple question: Do I want to punch this character in the face? For both Staunton's all-smiles fascist Professor Umbridge and Bonham Carter's psychotic Bellatrix Lestrange, the answer is yes.

The Magics:
The series has gone a long way in establishing magic as a tool, but this is the first film to truly establish magic as a weapon. Sure, we've seen a handful of characters get avada kedavra'd, but this is the first time we get to see a full-fledged magical battle. The result, while not as visually mindblowing as you'd expect until the final, jaw-dropping Dumbledore-Voldemort stand-off, falls right in line with the series' increased focus on magic being a utilitarian skill. It's fast and it's dirty...it's soldiers acting quickly and efficiently and not worrying about looking good as long as the job gets done.

Accuracy to the Book:
The storytelling efficiency on display in 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' is actually intimidating. How do take the longest book in the series (870 pages) and transform it into the shortest film (138 minutes)? That's an actual question. I'm still not quite sure how they pulled that off and I literally just watched the darn thing. I hope you can tell me. I'm sure a lot of it had to do with the book itself being ridiculously overwritten (it's at least 150 pages too long), but certainly a lot of it has to do with what I've been saying this whole time: it finds the story. This is not the story of Harry Potter's fifth year at school. This is the story of Harry Potter battling two enemies, the one who wants to wreck his world and the one who wants everyone to ignore the impending doom. By isolating that conflict and building an entire story around it, 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' captures the story of the novel and provides a satisfying cinematic experience. The fact that it manages to be under two and a half hours is just extra gravy. Wonderful, delicious gravy.

Thoughts: This is the part where I spend a paragraph telling you just how good Michael Gambon is as Albus Dumbledore. You ready? Here we go.

Dumbledore as written is a wise old man, but he's also a wacky eccentric, the kind of guy who you'd imagine did a lot of drugs and went on a lot of pretty crazy journeys back in his day. This is one of the greatest wizards in the world, a guy who could have gone on to be Minister of Magic but instead chose to teach. He masks his extraordinary power with quiet humor and a twinkle in his eyes, but when face to face with the most evil dark wizard in history, like in the climax of 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,' he lives up to his reputation and then some. He's a fascinating character because he's a mass of contradictions...in other words, he's fascinating because he's human. Michael Gambon may not be a household name, but he simply owns this role; a role that requires him to be a kooky old headmaster, a wise scholar and a powerful warrior. It's hard to imagine anyone else in the role, even though the character was actually played by Richard Harris in the first two films (and to be perfectly honest, it's impossible to imagine Harris' Dumbledore in that climactic duel).

'Order of the Phoenix' is one of the strongest films in the series, finding the perfect line between faithful adaptation and orginal film. I'm reminded of that old Howard Hawks quote on what you need to make a good movie: "Three good scenes, no bad scenes." The fifth Harry Potter adventure has that amazing Dumbledore-Voldemort showdown, the fist-pumpingly great scene where Fred and George Weasley quit school via a chaotic fireworks display and the genuinely eerie opening scene, which finds Harry and his cousin assaulted by Dementors in a claustrophobic tunnel. It also has no bad scenes. I suppose that makes this one a winner.

What makes this film all the more surprising is that it's the feature debut of British TV director David Yates. This is a tremendously confident and competent film and although not as crazy or beautiful as Cuaron's work, it finds a comfortable groove that serves these characters well. It took five films, but they finally found a filmmaker whose voice perfectly aligns with the world of Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), directed by David Yates

The Thespians: By this point in the series, most of the cast has been introduced and the series has stopped bringing in new names and has started concentrating on moving these characters into the final positions for the endgame. Quite simply, the plot has become far too dire to worry about bringing in too many new faces. However, the sixth film does find time for the always wonderful Jim Broadbent to show up and play Horace Slughorn. It's a performance that's equal parts comedic and tragic, a role that not only showcases what a great actor Broadbent is but also how wonderful all of the characters in this series have been. That's important to remember -- this is not just an ensemble of great names, it's an ensemble of great names portraying great characters. I would offer special kudos to JK Rowling for thinking all of this up in the first place but she certainly doesn't need myhelp. So I think she should actually thank me for writing a couple thousand words on the movie adaptations of her books. You're welcome.

The Magics: We don't see too many new aspects of the magical world in part six. By this point in the series, intrigue and action have overtaken awe and like Harry, the audience has just gotten used to all of the various spells and enchantments they can throw at us. However, take note of a scene near the start of the film where Dumbledore and Slughorn instantly repair a destroyed house with a simple wave of their wands. The camera lingers on this inconsequential but impressive moment and for the first time since the first two films, we are allowed to be caught up in the, pardon the pun, magic of the moment. In a film filled with death and adolescent pain, it's a vital reminder of the innocence that everyone has lost. Or it's just a really cool scene that allows the special effects team to show off. I'm happy with either explanation.

Accuracy to the Book:
Like 'Order of the Phoenix,' 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' succeeds as an adaptation by figuring out what the story is really about and sticking to it. Boiled down to its essence, this is a film about growing up. Harry's dealing with the usual teenager stuff now. You know, asking girls out, dealing with barely restrained sexual frustration, learning everything you need to know about the dark past history of your arch-nemesis, the usual. It's a film of two stories: 1. Harry and Dumbledore investigate Voldemart and 2. Harry and his friends deal with raging hormones. By breaking down the sprawling book into two complementary storylines, the film manages to say everything the book does while remaining at a reasonable length and never losing its pace. By this point, they've got this adaptation thing down pat.

Thoughts: Remember when I said that David Yates' work wasn't as gorgeous as Alfonso Cuaron's? He fixes that here. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel received an Oscar nomination for his work on 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' and it's easy to see why. Making use of Hogwarts' long, dusty hallways, its various towers and balconies and its gray and gold color scheme, every frame in this film evokes either beauty or loneliness, often at the same time. "I never noticed how beautiful it is here," Harry appropriately muses at the end of the film.

For a studio blockbuster about wizards and magic, 'Half-Blood Prince' is a remarkably quiet, reflective film that finally sounds the death knell for these characters' childhoods (as well as the literal death knell for a very important character). Cuaron's film was about the pains of growing up, Newell's film was about realizing that someone won't always be there to help you and Yates' films are about finally stepping into your big boy shoes, venturing out into the world and hoping you survive. Of course, the "survive" part is more literal for Harry, who has Death Eaters a'knockin' at his door, but we can all relate to those terrifying moments when you first realized you were an adult and had to fend for yourself.

Although it has its great effects-driven moments (Dumbledore and Harry VS the Inferi can be scientifically classified as a "OMG Wow!" moment), it's pleasantly surprising just how character-driven subtle most of the film is. At least half of the running time is devoted to the characters' growing interest in romance and the handful of action moments come early (the Death Eater attack on London and Diagon Alley), pack a devastating emotional punch (the destruction of the Weasley's home) or are quietly, almost terrifyingly intense (the bathroom duel between Harry and Draco Malfoy).

Just look at how far this series has come. The journey from the lighthearted but mediocre first film to the complicated and devastating sixth film feels impossible, but here it is, right before our very eyes. We've watched these kids grow up. We've heard their voices change between films. We've seen little Emma Watson grow into something of a sex symbol, Daniel Radcliffe journey to the London stage and Rupert Grint -- er, well, he's Rupert Grint. Has any other film series managed to make the death of childhood feel this literal? Of course not...what other fictional film series has spent a decade tracking the same actors playing the same characters? For that reason above all others, the Harry Potter series is remarkable.

Conclusions and Such

Marathon Ranking:

1. 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban'
2. 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'
3. 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix'
4. 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire'
5. 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'
6. 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'

Best Thespian: A tough choice bordering on impossible, but I'll cast my vote for Alan Rickman, whose equally sympathetic and despicable (and frequently underutilized) Snape is one of the true highlights of the entire series.

Best Use of the Magics:
The stripped down magic of 'Prisoner of Azkaban' may not be flashy, but it gives the Potter universe a much-needed dose of reality.

Best Adaptation: Did I mention that 'Order of the Phoenix' admirably captures its source while remaining under two and a half hours? Yes. Yes I did. WINNER!

Worst Adaptation: Although it's the best film of the bunch, 'Prisoner of Azkaban' is a dreadful failure of an adaptation. They couldn't even mention that James, Lupin, Sirius and Wormtail designed the Marauder's Map? For shame!

Series High Point: It's a tie between the Holy-Crap-This-Is-Amazing wizard duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort at the climax of 'Order of the Phoenix' and the wordless, quietly beautiful scene of Dumbledore leading Harry away from the press immediately following said duel at the beginning of 'Half-Blood Prince.'

Series Low Point:
The cave troll in 'Sorcerer's Stone' is one of the more shameful CGI creations of the past decade or two and is a definite contender, but I think the real answer is the entirety of 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.'

Total Length of Marathon:
15 hours, 2 minutes.

Previous Marathons:

The 'Saw' Series
The 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' Series