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Non-Review Review: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone

So, here we are, back at the beginning. The first movie in the eight-movie cycle about the boy wizard with the distinctive glasses. Harry Potter – “the boy who lived”, as he is described – and his eventful six-year stay at Hogwarts, with one final story to wrap it all up. To be honest, the first movie does benefit a lot from the movies that followed, giving the film a lot of retroactive weight as you can see the plot threads thrown out and suggested to be developed later – the countless little set-ups deployed by Rowling to pay off down the line. Which is handy, I suppose, because otherwise the instalment feels just a little bit too slow and convoluted for its own good.

The series has a bit of difficulty getting off the ground...

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was renamed as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the United States. Presumably because American audiences didn’t know that something called “the Philosopher’s Stone” is actually a piece of folklore, and also because “Sorcerer” sounds significantly cooler than “Philosopher.” It might sound like an artsy European drama, otherwise. In fairness, the studios did rename Live Free or Die Hard to Die Hard 5.0 for us stupid European movie-goers, so who am I to judge? I just honestly find this sort of thing fascinating.

Anyway, there’s just something incredibly pedestrian about this first entry in the franchise, as if we’re watching a documentary about wizards, rather than getting caught up in a story featuring them. I suspect it might have something to do with the adaptation process, which was notoriously faithful this early in the game (and only really began to deviate when the size of the books made absolute fidelity impossible). So, much like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets there are a variety of clever sequences that go on more than a bit longer than they really need to, or could be trimmed entirely, and we spend so much time learning the rules of quidditch that the game ceases to really be… well, magical at all, to be frank.

The game's afoot...

Which is a shame, because Christopher Columbus has some nice little ideas on show here. In particular, it’s nice to spot the director’s rather obvious influences. The practical effects for the spiders and the snake in the sequel would make it somewhat clearer, but there’s a strong affection for eighties fantasy, as one can detect in sequences set amid the gothic third floor of Hogwarts, or in the woods. At one point, a mysterious robed figure glides away into the night like a special effect from Willow or Krull. Okay, perhaps the execution is slightly better, but the influence is clear.

Similarly, there’s something quite like those old-school Hammer Horrors in the production design of Hogwarts, with the colour saturation turned way up and the somewhat childish attitude towards death and bloodshed. I do especially like the little references to Star Wars, such as a sequence featuring an escape down a trapdoor (“lucky this plant’s here, really”) that reminded me of the trash compactor scene in A New Hope. The references and stylistic quirks would continue into the next film, which feels more consciously Spielberg-ian (it’s a word, I swear!), but they add to a pleasant atmosphere here.

A time for reflection...

The problem is that there’s just too much atmosphere, and we seem to be watching the movie just to passively soak it up. The writing is very clunky, but the direction feels almost lifeless. The cast exist to spout exposition more than anything else, and the movie seems afraid to create any sense of uncertainty or tension. Even when our three leads find themselves facing what could be their deaths, the movie doesn’t seem too bothered trying to get us to worry. Though it hints at sinister forces aligning themselves to confront and possibly eliminate Harry, there’s never any real sense of danger or dread. We know Harry’s going to be okay, because… well, because. So the threat isn’t menacing, there’s no real sense of any risk or drama, and the stakes never seem especially high. I’m not even talking about the reckless bloodshed of some of the later films, I’m talking about the type of dread and tension that Disney and Pixar regularly and effortlessly produce in child-friendly films.

It’s a damn shame, because there are some nice sequences hidden in here, they’re just ruined a little bit by the stunted pacing of the film. The “real wizard chess” sequence, for example, should be a classic, but the kids spend more time talking then actually doing anything. There’s a nice bit where the lead villain addresses Harry through a mirror, but the villain never really seems dangerous (that’s what happens when Harry can kill him by touching him) – so it all seems rather pointless.

Class mates...

In fairness, a bit of the problem stems from the fact that special effects ten years ago… well, they weren’t necessarily that special. The CGI is okay in places, but there are quite a few moments when the movie strays just a little bit too far into the uncanny valley – for example, Harry’s confrontation (and wrestling match) with a giant troll or the centaurs that roam the woods. The sequel would make the weakness more apparent by alternating between CGI and practical effects, but it’s still just a little bit awkward here. It doesn’t work as well as it does in later instalments (perhaps the brightness makes the flaws more apparent).

There’s also just a really awkward saccharine taste to everything. The movie ends with a ridiculous happy ending (to the point where it’s even more obvious than the “no exams!” happy ending of the film that would follow), and the whole “wish fulfilment” angle of the Changeling fantasy is just played a little bit too earnestly. Kept in perpetual slavery, Harry comes to realise that not only is he a wizard, but that his parents were too famous wizards, he is a famous and well-respected wizard, and he has a seemingly unlimited amount of money. Which he uses to buy sweets. It just seems like the syrup has been layered on just a little bit too heavy, and the most powerful moment of the film sees Harry and Dumbledore reflecting on his loss, rather than celebrating how incredibly awesome it is to be a wizard.

A spell of detention...

Speaking of the fantasy, I’ve always felt that Harry’s adoptive family, the Dursley’s gets a bit of a raw deal, especially when measured against Dumbledore and Hogwarts, which Harry considers his real home. In fairness, it’s great to see Richard Griffiths in a juicy role as Harry’s oppressive uncle, but I wonder if they were really that bad. Sure, they treat Harry like a slave, and have him cook breakfast for the family and keep him locked up under the stairs… but this is a kid who thinks it’s fun to remove the glass at the zoo and throw his cousin in to a giant python. If it were me, I’d try to limit his interactions with the outside world, especially if he was prone to letting killer beasts loose on the world. Besides, if the family treated him so badly, surely it’s even worse that sweet old Dumbledore never intervened to stop the abuse? After all, he left Harry there in the first place, and McGonnigle made her concerns clear.

In fairness, trying to stop Harry from going to Hogwarts might have seemed like a genuinely good decision to make for the kid, given his mother and father were killed for being wizards and the child himself was almost killed as a boy. Given the school’s safety record (we’re assured that “no one’s died in years” at quidditch and Dumbledore threatens those who stray into the third floor with death, while students are left alone with flying brooms), I’m not sure I’d want my relative going there. Being honest, I’m not sure I’d want to go there, either.

Warners really took the franchise under its wing...

The movie does make it clear that some of their motivation stems from a sort of bitterness over the fact Harry’s mother was a wizard, but perhaps that’s not unreasonable. We know, for instance, that Harry’s father was just a bit of a prick, and the series does feature quite a bit of casual racism towards non-magic-folk (I don’t know about you, but I want to reclaim the world “muggle”). McGonnigle assures Dumbledore that “these people” are “the worst sort of muggles imaginary.” Not that they’re not the worst people, they’re the worst muggles, which seems to imply the lowest of the low. In fact, Dumbledore and Hagrid show up and do whatever the hell they want to the Dursleys because they are magic folk and the poor humans can’t stop them. When Harry’s uncle objects to his nephew’s departure, Hargid taunts, “I suppose a great big muggle like you is going to stop him.” I honestly don’t blame the Dursleys for being unsure what to do with Harry, because I wouldn’t want him to grow into such a smug and superior individual, who feels they can treat me like dirt because I was born unable to do magic.

We also see a hint of the sociopathy that the kids would develop further in the film to follow. Sure, here they don’t drug any classmates and tie them up in the broom cupboard. Instead, they set fire to a teacher, for what later turns out to be no good reason, and they knock a fellow student unconscious rather than explain what’s going on to him (“it’s for your own good, you know,” they tell his collapsed form). “You’re a little scary sometimes,” Ron tells Hermoine, and it’s hard not to agree. It’s actually quite funny, in hindsight, that the later movies couldn’t make more of the “is Harry capable of being as evil as Voldemort?” bit, because there’s a lot of compelling evidence here.

Witch is your favourite supporting cast member?

On the other hand, the adult supporting cast is great. We never really got a chance to see Richard Harris develop in the role of Dumbledore beyond the “lovable old grandfather” routine, and I think Gambon got the really meaty part of the role. Still, he’s a joy to watch, and it’s a shame there wasn’t more of him. Alan Rickman is awesome as he chows down on the scenery and Maggie Smith is solid-as-ever (though her really great moments come towards the end of the series). Robbie Coltrane also deserves some recognition for his work as Hagrid and it’s always nice to see John Hurt because… well, it’s always nice to see John Hurt.

Looking at this first instalment, the best was very much ahead, and it’s perhaps best viewed as a stepping-stone for stories to come, but it does feel a bit weak taken on its own merits.

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10 Responses

  1. You clearly have never read the books before– your opinions on the movie seem very misinformed. But that’s probably the movies’ fault; they leave plot holes and flaws in character development that are completely foreign to the books. I get that this is a movie blog, but if you ever feel like critiquing HP as a story, I suggest you read the books fist =)

    • Not to sound belligerent, but why? Why do I need to read the books to offer an opinion on the story?

      Films should be able to stand on their own two feet. I’m not reviewing the book, but the film itself. I think it’s a valid position, and I’m just curious why you disagree? Do you need to read every Batman comic to offer an opinion on The Dark Knight? What about The Godfather? Do you need to read the book to judge that?

      When you say I’m “misinformed”, did I miss an element of the movie in question? My style is to be somewhat flippant, even when reviewing material I like, and I apologise if you took offense.

      • I don’t really recall how it went down in the movie, but in the books the whole glass pane/ snake thing was a complete accident (since he didn’t know he had magic powers). Also, while Dumbledore may have disapproved of how Harry was treated, he still considered the aunt and uncle his legal guardians. Interference would probably be inappropriate from his perspective. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that he was better off in the wizarding world compared to the muggle world.

        That being said, the safety precautions at Hogwarts are hillariously terrible. I’m not sure who decided a Quidditch match during a lightning storm was a good idea (in the third movie).

      • I know, and I was kinda joking, but it’s easy to imagine muggle caretakers having difficulty managing a wizard child. It’s like that bit in the first X-Men where they talk about a kid who accidentally sucked all the air out of his classroom. It’s fun to imagine the real-world consequences of dealing with kids who don’t even know the powers they have.

      • Actually, I’d say that just about every one of the plot holes and contrivances you pointed out above stemmed directly from the book (I just read it last month). Rowling’s writing is perhaps some of the least consistent I’ve ever read. It’s like she doesn’t quite realize what she puts down on the page and the implications of it.

        The book does make clear that Harry let the snake out accidentally, but really your point stands – there’s a case that, whatever his motives, Harry Potter is a menace to magical society.

      • Thanks for that! Maybe I was too harsh on the film.

      • No, I don’t think you’re too harsh on the film. I like the books and I like the movies, but they have a lot of plot holes. A good film adaptation of a book should try to resolve plot holes, not just copy them straight from the page onto the screen.

  2. Apparently Terry Gilliam would have been Rowling’s first choice to direct? Imagine how awesome that would have been. He later said the studio constraints would have frustrated him, but Azkaban showed it’s possible to make something special while working within them, so.

    • Yep. Azkaban seems to be the consensus best film in the franchise, at least for those audience members not attached to textual fidelity.

      • Here’s the thing though: The first two films *do* technically adapt the first two books, but in the laziest, most pedestrian way imaginable. Allison Shoemaker put it best. In the first book, there’s a trick stair in the middle of the staircase where your foot gets stuck. In the first movie….they kinda swap places. And they stop doing that in later movies.

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