November 14 marks the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone, the Hollywood adaptation of the first book in J.K. Rowling’s almost inconceivably popular kid-lit fantasy series. Back then, the big question on everyone’s mind was whether the films could match the success of their source material—and maybe even if the first one would even prove successful enough to spawn a whole corresponding movie series. Which of course seems very quaint today, with the eighth and final Potter movie now a decade in our rearview mirror and the series now a holiday-season (and year-round cable-TV) perennial, despite the general cruddiness of both the Fantastic Beasts prequels and Rowling’s public remarks.
With hindsight, it’s of course possible to see a spectrum of quality in these quality-controlled all-ages blockbusters. Our own Noel Murray, in fact, offered a ranking of the whole series a few years ago. But how did The A.V. Club feel as the franchise was still in progress, before it dove into deathly hallows?
In honor of this upcoming anniversary, we’ve rounded up the contemporaneous reviews we wrote on each Potter installment and done our best to put them in order of general site preference. “Our best” because the Harry Potter franchise predates not just the A.V. Club’s adoption of letter grades for reviews but also the tenure of almost everyone who writes for the website today. Plus, they were written by no less than three AVC staffers, each with presumably different opinions about the best and worst of this smash franchise. (What they all seem to agree on: None of these movies are great, exactly.)
Nonetheless, a pattern of fluctuating enthusiasm does reveal itself as you make your way through every AVC take on every new adventure at Hogwarts. Don’t tell apple-polishing Hermione, but the first couple, at least, might have struggled to earn a passing grade.