Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) join forces to fight evil in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

Directed by Chris Columbus. Produced by David Heyman. Screenplay by Steve Kloves, based upon the novel by J.K. Rowling. Music by John Williams. Photographed by John Seale. Edited by Richard Francis-Bruce. Production designed by Stuart Craig. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Ian Hart, Tom Felton, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Harry Melling, John Hurt, Matthew Lewis, Richard Bremmer, Warwick Davis.

I have never read a “Harry Potter” book. I say that not to underline any lack of interest I might have in the wildly popular fantasy series created by J.K. Rowling (I will get to them one day, I swear). Instead, I wish to lay my ignorance cards on the table, stating that I only know the ins and outs of Potter-dom by way of the motion pictures, and I must say unequivocally: I am a fan. I think that says something. The fact that so far I have been too lazy to read the novels in question, despite my enthusiasm for the franchise as a whole, probably also says something, mainly about me, but that’s not really the point here, is there? Anyway.

Has there ever been a series of films that has enjoyed such consistent quality control as the Harry Potter films? I’d argue not. What is the competition? The James Bond series always has a Moonraker just offstage to break its occasional solid streaks. The Star Wars films couldn’t make it to movie #4 without derailing. Star Trek fans invoke the existence of an “odd-numbered” curse to explain why half of those films are lesser. For every Rocky, there is a Rocky V. Practically every series has its own eventual dip in creativity, and yet the Harry Potter films are immune from this kind of  fatigue. Yes, it helps that the whole story is already mapped out by Rowling’s prose, but that doesn’t explain the confidence with which the films have walked the path laid out for them. For that, I credit the collective of top-drawer talent that the Potter series have amassed, so much so that there is a perfect continuity of vision even when behind-the-scenes participants have come and gone. And let us not discount the depth of that vision, which has grown darker and more mature with each successive film. This provides a crucial resonance: for many Potter films, the stories are like a childhood friend that they have grown up with, together.

The Harry Potter movies have made a habit of changing directors every so often. The last four (Order of the Phoenix thru Deathly Hollows, Pt. 2) have been helmed by David Yates, who got his start in British TV but has nevertheless become the series’ M.V.P., successfully creating a stunning sense of scale and adult-minded dread. Before that, Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) directed Goblet of Fire, where Newell’s sensibilities were well-matched to the story’s teen romances, and he acquitted himself nicely with the action/epic stuff as well. And before that was Alfonso Cuaron’s (Children of Men) production of Prisoner of Azkaban, which remains in many ways the series’ most stylish and polished effort. The director-switching trick has made good policy; not only has it insured against burn-out, but has allowed different creative teams to place their own stamp on the material.

Then there is The Sorcerer’s Stone. Just like its follow-up, Chamber of Secrets, it was directed by Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Rent), who is not in the same league as these other men. He is not a bad filmmaker, just an uninspired one: the whole product here is aggressively…competent. No more, no less. The shot selections are decent, even when they’re sometimes garishly overlit. The special effects are good, even though Columbus favors calling undue attention to them, which robs them of their magic. And he sometimes seems at a loss with how to compress Rowling’s book into a streamlined narrative. As a result, the whole enterprise frequently feels episodic, and there are periods in this two-and-a-half hour film where the momentum slows to nil.

That’s probably because, unlike later films in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is definitely not about plot. Like a pilot for a television series, story comes secondary to Sorcerer’s Stone’s main goals: establish a universe, introduce us to the peculiar supporting cast that populates it, and also acquaint us with the three key characters who will spend the next several years guiding us through it. On that level, it is a success, one that benefits greatly from Columbus’ considerable skill as a director of child actors. Let us take a moment to marvel at how absolutely right the casting decisions made here were: knowing that this was intended as a long-running franchise, Columbus was either gifted or lucky (or both) in his ability to cherry-pick just the right young actors that could carry this series past puberty, past young adulthood, all the way to the beginning of a new decade without a single misstep. It’s really kind of amazing, the more you think about it.

I know enough about the books (and their translations to the screen) to know that they are imaginative and literate, and the movie does a good job of forwarding that aspect to the viewer. Rowling’s characters speak with wit, her mythology is immense, and there are nods to English literature in the story’s blood: the structure is suggested from the books of Thomas Hughes, and a stormy family retreat to a precarious abandoned lighthouse recalls the best absurdist work of Roald Dahl. And of course, when we first meet Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), he’s making breakfast for his entire adopted family, while their son Dursley complains about his precise number of birthday presents. It’s the kind of image that Dickens would approve of. The whole film is like that, full of little grace notes that show a writer enjoying herself. The best that can be said for screenwriter Steve Kloves is that he kindly gets out of the way.

Harry, who is raised by his aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) and uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) under a cloud of disdain, is a plucky and resourceful hero who celebrates his own 11th birthday with quiet reflection. But when a flurry of letters summoning Harry to “Hogwarts’ School of Withcraft and Wizardry,” attacks the house, the family resists letting the boy go until the arrival of the hairy giant Hagrid (Robby Coltrane), groundskeeper of Hogwarts, who lays it all out for young Harry: who his parents really were, how they died, how Harry got that bolt-of-lightning scar on his face, and why he must leave the world of Muggles (“non-magic folk,” Hagrid says) behind. The moments like this, which establish a real sense of wonder and fear, are some of the movie’s best, and I love the way Shaw, as aunt Petunia, milks the moment where she tells Harry about his mother (“a FREAK!”) for all it’s worth—stretching words until they’re about to snap. Her tour de force is mirrored later by John Hurt as the wand salesman Olivander, who predicts great and terrifying things for Harry Potter—Hurt makes the scene maybe my favorite in the entire film. And then Hagrid has to explain why an entire tavern halts its activity and stares when Harry’s name is mentioned. Never a good sign.

Hagrid will play an important role in Harry’s new life, but two others will play greater ones still. The first is Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), member of a large family that instructs Harry how to board the Hogwarts train, by slipping through a secret pillar in a London station.  Ron is mop-topped, sweet and downtrodden, so naturally Harry befriends the lad and defends him from bullying. The other crucial person is, of course, Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), she of curly hair and a smidgen of arrogance, filling nicely the classic children’s fiction role of the crabby know-it-all girl. Between them, without realizing, they strike a delicate, winning bond that will carry the films through to the end. She is the brain, Ron (who I have always favored) is the heart, and Harry, balancing between the two is our winning protagonist. It’s a classic triumvirate that would be a tired cliché if it didn’t work, but it does, and it isn’t. Honestly, the first hour or so of the film is pretty terrific at creating a palpable sense of magic–comparable to the 80’s work of Steven Spielberg, of whom director Columbus is a noted student.

Every epic needs of course, a good villain. And when we arrive at Hogwarts, we get two, not counting the suspicious faculty members (Alan Rickman has hammy fun as the maybe-evil Professor Snape). Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is a churlish, impatient bully, a double for Harry who inadvertently stresses the classic theme of compassion and curiosity being more important (and in the end, rewarding) than ambition. And then there is the evil “he who shall not be named” (who is named…um…Voldemort…shh…sorry), who waits in the wings in this installment, having no corporeal form, although he does manage to pencil in an appearance. And then there is the school itself, which is a hotbed of forbidden wings, dangerously enchanted objects, troll-infested dungeons, and a secret room that holds the mysterious “sorcerer’s stone,” a coveted tool for unlimited alchemy.

All of this is a great deal of fun, and there’s an extra charge on-screen whenever the late Richard Harris (as the veteran headmaster Dumbledore) appears. But the film loses its way around the midpoint or so. Other critics have labeled the film as overly faithful to Rowling’s narrative, and you sometimes get that impression–of an adaptation desperate to copy down every detail, no matter how trivial. There are lengthy time-outs for extended (and now-dated) special effects sequences: troll fights, broom chases, and the iconic Quidditch match, in which Quidditch reveals itself to be a rather arbitrary and dull sport to watch.  It becomes oppressive and long, and the many scenes of the children telling each other what they are assuming is going on become tiresome. That’s probably because for much of the film, nothing seems to be at stake: there are ominous portents and endless speculation that someone is trying to steal the sorcerer’s stone, but there is little sense of danger. Only in the very end, when Harry comes face to face (to face) with evil does he seem to finally be in trouble.

As I said, Sorcerer’s Stone is not about plot, and the film works best when it spends time with the characters, as the story of Harry’s growing self-esteem provides the story’s throughline. Sorcerer’s Stone never overstates its theme, but it is indeed an affirmation of the importance of family, no matter if it’s a biological one: the scenes where Harry deeply misses his parents are counterbalanced by the growing camaraderie between Harry, Ron, and Hermione, creating a loving family unit, never more apparent than a climactic sequence where all three kids contribute their strengths to making it out alive. And again, the young actors do a surprising amount of good work in negotiating the emotional journey of the story, and also manage to sell the story’s sense of humor surprisingly well, considering Columbus is a bit lead-footed in that department. For my money, the funniest bit in the whole movie is neither dialogue or action, but instead Watson’s nicely understated double take when Ron questions what she is reading. Now that’s a sharp young actress.

The production is handsomely-mounted by Columbus, even though, again, I think he and his DP, John Seale, bathe the entire affair in too much light–while the classrooms look atmospheric and persuasive, the broom-riding lessons now look exactly like the video games they inspired, and the animated troll here pales in comparison to the one in The Lord of the Rings, released the same year.  Yet other scenes, with their commitment to practical (or practical-looking) effects work a curious spell: the obvious backdrops and stately compositions are frequently charming–they evoke the kind of film they could have made from this material in the 30’s, if they really wanted to. The only thing that truly disappoints is John Williams’ syrupy, trite score, which alternates between bombastic and boring.

The movie just plain works. Perhaps not on the level it could, but it does, and it provides an agreeable baseline to build from in future installments. Later Potter films go deeper and grow more sophisticated in exploring their shared universe, but Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a fine first step. As previously stated, there are no bad Harry Potter movies, only ones that aren’t as good as the others, but they all share a special gift for enveloping the viewer in a rich, inviting fantasy world that compares favorably to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and Lucas’ Star Wars. They have a magic touch, and that is something that cannot be bought, only lovingly, effortlessly crafted. I anticipate one day having read the books and being able to speak from an informed perspective about what has been changed, and why. I don’t have that ability, but I can see an extraordinary, imaginative, ever-expanding universe that is incredible to behold. It’s truly enchanting. Any Muggle can see that.

GRADE: B

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1952 – Singin’ in the Rain

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1987 – Leonard Part 6

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