The Film: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
The Principals: Chris Columbus (Director). Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith…. Etceteras, okay?.
The Premise: Really? Okay. On his eleventh birthday, young wizard Harry Potter (Radcliffe) is sent to his first year at The Hogwarts School Of Wizardry. Together with his friends Ron Weasley (Grint) and Hermoine Granger (Watson), he gets into many adventures along the way, as he discovers secrets about his past and the murder of his parents by the evil Voldemort – a dark, cursed wizard who will be the great nemesis until Potter leaves the school or finally destroys him or whatever the fuck ends up happening in the final installment of the series.
Is It Good: I’m not really a big fan of this series, especially these first movies. But I have to admit it isn’t bad. The characters are likable and the young actors invest them with genuine enthusiasm so that you buy into it easily enough. Furthermore, Chris Columbus directs the movie with the sort of Spielbergian flare he always strives for. He is aided in this by John Williams and a bouncy score (that lifts quite liberally from his own scores for Hook and Jurassic Park. But Williams is not Williams if he isn’t ripping himself off, so whatever).
The cast of veteran British actors is very well-picked. Though, to be fair, I think they just went to everyone out there and gave them a part. I’m pretty sure that every single available UK/Ireland actor will have participated in this series by the end. The standouts are: Coltrane, who plays the amiable groundskeeper Hagrid with just the right amount of camp; Rickman, who chews the scenery with relish as the ambiguous Snape; and Harris who brings genuine warmth to the character of Dumbledore. It’s a shame Harris didn’t live to continue with the role because I don’t think Michael Gambon found this exact note and the character suffered, in my opinion, as a result. I actually think Anthony Hopkins would have been a better replacement.
My one big complaint with the movie is the same now as it was then. It is too damn long and episodic in nature to really engage you on the level it should. It always struck me as unusual that this was a kid’s movie and they made it so long. I never thought you could get a kid to sit still and watch a movie for more than 100 minutes. But, the truth is, the episodic structure of the piece makes it perfect for kids with short attention spans. There is always something happening and, as they drift in and out of concentration, there will always be a new adventure to catch their interest.
Still, Steve Kloves was clearly very faithful in adapting what must be a very episodic book. There is no real dramatic through-line here. Potter arrives, a series of events happen, a bad guy shows up in the last reel, he is vanquished and the movie ends. It feels a bit like watching an entire season of a TV show squished into two and a half hours. And some scenes suffer from an odd redundancy, with characters repeating the same things over and over again.
Is It Worth A Look: Basically, if this sort of thing isn’t really your cup of tea, there’s no reason you should. Chances are, you’ll find it kind of insufferable. But, as I said, it’s not actually a bad movie. It’s well put together. Most of the effects still hold up (those cgi stunt doubles are an eyesore, though) and it does the job in its genre fairly well enough. It tries hard to recapture the magic of 80s fantasy/adventure movies. And, were it a bit tighter, it might actually achieve that. Some action scenes (the quidditch match, the deadly gigantic chess game…) are unusual and interesting set pieces. (Though the quidditch match will become a kind of repetitive bore by movie number three, I think)
The truth is, at this point, you probably know where you stand on this whole thing. Since it’s all about to end, you may as well revisit the series if it’s your bag, right?
Random Anecdote: Never really interested in anything having to do with Harry Potter, and being relatively disappointed by the movie during its original theatrical run, I actually sought the first book out after watching – just to see what all the fuss was about and if maybe the book had the “magic” I had felt missing from the film.
I remember sitting on a plane about to depart from Miami and beginning to read… I must have gotten about 30 or so pages into it when I realized I had quite enough of goblins and magic nooks and crannies and wizards and broomsticks and all that garbage. I put the book in the magazine pocket in front of me and went to sleep, never to attempt reading it again.
I now realize this means I have no soul.
By the way, I forgot the book on the plane. So maybe some lucky kid got to appreciate what I couldn’t.
Cinematc Soulmates: Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban, Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, Deathly Hallows: Parts 1 & 2