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A refresher course for the 'Potter' saga

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

Having trouble remembering the first seven Harry Potter movies? Here's a cheat sheet.

'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'

Year: 2001

Director: Chris Columbus ("Home Alone")

Plot: Eleven-year-old orphan Harry Potter, living with his dastardly aunt and uncle, discovers his wizarding family and goes to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to learn magic.

British guest stars: They were never given that much to do, but "Stone" established the franchise as a home for the crème de la crème of British character actors, from Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid to Maggie Smith as Minverva McGonagall. The MVP is Alan Rickman as the sinister Severus Snape, who becomes a tragic hero as the movies progress.

Pros: As literal a translation of a book as has ever been lensed, "Stone" thrilled fans who were worried about the movie taking liberties.

Cons: As literal a translation of a book as has ever been lensed, "Stone" moves timidly, hitting plot points almost out of obligation. Also, the kids, while looking perfect, are not very good.

Verdict: Thought stiff, "Stone" launched a worldwide phenomenon, and every other Potter movie accepts or rejects decisions made here. (Interestingly, all of the movies, especially the first two, work much better on TV.)

'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'

Year: 2002

Director: Chris Columbus

Plot: Potter and his pals find a magic diary that proves an old enemy may be returning.

British guest star: Kenneth Branagh, channeling his inner William Shatner, as dashing, vain Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart.

Pros: "Stone" and "Chamber" were filmed back to back, so the kids continue to look spot-on, age-wise.

Cons: See "Sorcerer's Stone."

Verdict: Tonally identical to its predecessor, it has precisely the same strengths and weaknesses.

'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban'

Year: 2004

Director: Alfonso Cuarón ("Y Tu Mamá Tambien," "Children of Men")

Plot: Harry and his pals discover an escaped prisoner might not be who everyone thinks he is.

British guest stars: Michael Gambon replaces the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore; Emma Thompson plays flaky divination professor Sybill Trelawney; a weathered Gary Oldman is Sirius Black; and David Thewlis plays the heroic were-professor Remus Lupin.

Pros: Cuarón loosened up the franchise, from speeding the action to smart touches (the children's chorus singing "Something Wicked This Way Comes!" was brilliant) to coaxing the first good performances from the leads.

Cons: Not. Enough. Snape.

Verdict: One of the franchise's strongest movie-qua-movies.

'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire'

Year: 2005

Director: Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral")

Plot: Forces conspire against Harry as he is forced to participate in a magical tournament well beyond his years and Voldemort makes his dramatic return.

British guest stars: Brendan Gleeson grumps and limps perfectly as "Mad-Eye" Moody; Miranda Richardson shines as the tabloid reporter Rita Skeeter; future Doctor Who David Tennant rants as the homicidal Barty Crouch Jr.

Pros: With crushes and romance, "Goblet" is the first franchise entry that feels like actual teenhood. Newell brings a light touch and sharp visual ideas: The Triwizard Tournament is beautifully realized and making the wizard rock band the Weird Sisters half-Pulp/half-Radiohead was inspired; a full album would have been welcome. And check out a pre-"Twilight" (and more charming) Robert Pattinson as the heroic Cedric Diggory.

Cons: From the thick, CGI makeup to scene-chomping overacting, Ralph Fiennes' long-awaited debut as Voldemort is a bit of a letdown.

Verdict: Everything from good character work across the board and cool, world-building set pieces to a wizard prom and a tragic ending makes this one a deserved fan favorite.

'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix'

Year: 2007

Director: David Yates

Plot: A student rebellion begins as agents of darkness seize control of Hogwarts and Harry discovers his father wasn't quite the man he thought.

British guest stars: Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge; Helena Bonahm Carter as the psychotic Bellatrix Lestrange.

Pros: Yates helmed the final four movies, and he brings a consistent tone and dramatic style. And Staunton is terrifying as the sadistic, pink-clad Umbridge.

Cons: "Order" is the longest, most complicated book in the series, but the shortest movie. Large hunks of subplot are dropped or reworked, and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg misses badly. (He would later serve as one of the four writers on the atrocious "Green Lantern.")

Verdict: Dark, cranky and crammed with exposition and plotting misfires, it's the weakest movie since the first.

'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'

Year: 2009

Director: David Yates

Plot: A war is coming, students choose sides, and a beloved teacher falls.

British guest star: Jim Broadbent delivers perfectly as guilt-ridden potions teacher Horace Slughorn.

Pros: A tour de force from Rickman in the movie's critical climax. Various potions as first drug trips. At its best, "Half-Blood" recalls old British "Hammer horror" movies.

Cons: Yates seems to still be finding his emotional footing. There is zero romantic chemistry between some key players, and the final scenes, full of grief and a leave-taking of Hogwarts, simply don't pack the requisite punch.

Verdict: Not lousy, not a peak. In spite of a powerful climax, "Half-Blood" still feels like a bit of a placeholder before the final two.

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1'

Year: 2010

Director: David Yates

Plot: Harry and his friends are on a quest while Hogwarts steels itself for the final battle with Voldemort's forces.

British guest star: Bill Nighy, a true pro, as Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour.

Pros: A terrifically dark opening gives the movie proper gravitas, and there are some nice moments shot handheld-style that point to an earthier, less CGI-driven movie.

Cons: "Hallows" is like watching footage of a couple taking their first vacation, full of petty squabbles, unspoken tension and moments nobody who is not on the trip wants to see. By focusing on the three leads, we lose the meaning behind Harry's quest.

Verdict: All prelude to the sure-to-be-violent, epic finale. (Also, one feels a bit bad for Radcliffe. As he topped out at 5 feet 6 six inches, his peers now tower over him.)

jgross@statesman.com; 912-5925