Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 12, 2009)
As I approached the task of writing my thoughts about 2001’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I wondered if I should bother. I mean, sometimes I think it’s folly for me to believe that my random ramblings about flicks makes an impact on readers anyway, but surely no one needs my praise or criticism of this movie.
The entire franchise was totally pre-sold before Stone ever recorded a frame of film. Of course, many films are like that, but with its army of book fans, the Potter franchise seems especially resistant to critical comment. I highly doubt that I’ll sway anyone either in a positive or negative way.
But the apparent pointlessness of an activity never kept me from it in the past, so I figure I should soldier on here and detail my reactions to Stone. Back in 2002, the DVD presented my first viewing of the film, and indeed it offered my initial sustained involvement in anything Potter related. Of course, I was well aware of the franchise and had some mild knowledge of its characters and situations. However, my knowledge went nowhere beyond that, so I greeted Stone as a semi-neophyte.
For the other newbies out there, here’s the gist of things. At the start of Stone, we see baby Harry get dropped off at the home of his aunt and uncle. For unexplained reasons, his parents can’t care for him, so some mysterious magical parties – who we’ll get to know later – leave him with the Durleys. Straight out of a Roald Dahl novel, they’re a nasty and selfish lot who aspire to do little more than use and abuse poor Harry (Daniel Radcliffe). On the occasion of his 11th birthday, owls start to leave letters for Harry, but cruel Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) goes to extreme measures to make sure the lad doesn’t read them.
The senders of the letters represent Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and they won’t be denied their new pupil. Eventually school assistant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) comes to fetch the boy, and Harry quickly learns about his destiny. Apparently he’s something of a magical golden boy with spectacular innate powers. Hagrid helps outfit Harry with the appropriate gear and makes sure he takes the train to the school.
Along the way, Harry meets and befriends to new recruits, Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). She’s a know-it-all perfectionist, while Ron’s a somewhat insecure and nerdy guy. After they reach Hogwarts, they end up in the same dorm and gradually get their initiation into this new world of magic.
Slowly a plot unfolds. The kids learn of something called the Sorcerer’s Stone, which is being kept deep within Hogwarts. Essentially, the possession of this sucker will help make its user immortal, and some nasties want it for themselves. Apparently, ultra-evil Lord Voldemort stands behind these attempts, and the kids suspect that schoolteacher Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) serves as his lackey in this effort.
That’s not exactly a remarkable or revolutionary storyline, but it seems acceptable for this flick. At 152 minutes, Stone appears rather long for something in this genre. Normally I’d expect this sort of fantasy to clock in around 110 minutes, so that extra 50 minutes really could make it run slowly.
However, I think the running time feels appropriate because the film requires so much exposition. Stone boasts a nearly exact split. The first half of the film concentrates almost totally on character and situation introductions. We meet the kids and the school staff and also learn about the academy, the magical powers and tools, and some new vocabulary words like “muggle”. A smidgen of plot appears during the first 75 minutes, but not much; those moments focus on the establishment of the tone and the participants.
From there, things open up more during the second 75 minutes. We still learn a little more about the characters, especially as Harry gets to know more about his parents, and the main kids – Harry, Hermione, and Ron – develop their personalities to a fuller degree. Nonetheless, that part of the flick definitely emphasizes the quest for the Sorcerer’s Stone.
I think director Chris Columbus could have integrated the two elements better, as the bifurcated nature of the film seems a little awkward at times. I mean, the change from “character development” to “plot” happens so precisely at the movie’s midpoint that it feels awfully calculated. The flick doesn’t suffer from a terribly rough transition, but I simply think the move could come about in a more natural manner.
Still, Columbus had a difficult task, and I generally feel he handled it fairly well. He needed to satisfy the enormous core audience of Potter-philes as well as gently introduce neophytes into the series’ fairly complicated world. Too much exposition would turn off the former group, while too little would leave the latter crowd confused and disenchanted. I can’t speak for the serious fans, but I know a few, and they all seem pleased with the film, so I think Columbus left most of them happy.
As for the newbie audience, I’ll only speak for myself, and I found the level of exposition to be appropriate. The first half of the film could move somewhat slowly at times, but it actually seems surprisingly engaging. It’s fairly fun to meet the different folks and learn about the academy. Actually, I probably prefer those moments to the more story-oriented ones. Since the film features a pretty unremarkable plot, the second half of the movie appears a little bland and generic at times. I was more entertained with the heavier emphasis on characters seen earlier.
Stone gets a boost from a strong supporting cast, as the film boasts an exceedingly solid base of adult actors. In addition to the usually excellent Rickman and Coltrane, we find pros like Richard Harris and Maggie Smith in fairly prominent roles, while John Cleese and John Hurt show up in smaller parts. They do just fine in the film.
Coltrane is probably the most delightful of the bunch, as he makes the rough-looking and bulky Hagrid consistently charming and amusing. Even though some of his bits should become annoying, Coltrane’s talents make sure that doesn’t occur. For example, Hagrid constantly tells the kids facts that should remain secret, and he then comments that he shouldn’t have done that. The running gag should get old, but Coltrane delivers the lines so winningly that it works throughout the film.
As for the kids… well, two out of three ain’t bad. Watson seems appropriately precocious and snippy as Hermione, but she never becomes unlikable; the young actress nicely walks the line and keeps the character appropriately believable. As Ron, Grint comes across as a likeable nebbish who fits neatly into the best friend mold. Both of these children manage to bring their characters to life in suitable ways.
Unfortunately, I feel less wild about Radcliffe as Harry. He sure looks the part, but he shows almost no personality. I do believe that some of his lifelessness is intentional. The story clearly wants Harry to show growth and additional personality as he becomes more accomplished and confident in subsequent films; like Luke Skywalker, Harry’s a child of destiny with special gifts.
However, Radcliffe simply goes from really bland to a little less bland by the end of the film. When he needs to provide exuberant and charismatic moments – such as during the film’s climax or the Quidditch match – he can’t pull off the appropriate emotion. Radcliffe doesn’t actively hurt the movie, but I think he causes a minor void at its center; a flick’s main character shouldn’t be this bland, though I suppose he fits the mold set by many Disney animated pieces.
Speaking of animation, Stone suffers from some weak computer generated imagery. Occasionally the CG looks decent, but anytime it features moving characters, the quality drops badly.
The Quidditch game shows the most problems, as it features tons of movement, almost all of which looks fake. In addition, Harry’s fight with the troll suffers from similar movement. One odd problem arises when we see the creature Firenze. He doesn’t move much, but he appears very artificial; actually, he looks like something out of a videogame cut-scene. Given the budget and the prominence of this film, I find the weak CG to come as a surprise, and it hasn’t aged well; the effects looked iffy in 2001, so they seem especially awkward in 2009.
Nonetheless, I think Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone offers a reasonably enjoyable flick. I came into it with only a little foreknowledge and few real expectations, but I find it to offer a moderately likable and engaging tale. The movie handles gobs of exposition well and provides some decent action. I can’t claim that it moves me to be a part of the legions of Harry lovers, but I find it to be a watchable and entertaining experience.
Footnote: as many people know, Stone was retitled for American audiences. In most other places, the film was called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I guess the powers-that-be thought “philosopher” sounded too stuffy for American kids; they need something jazzy like a sorcerer! It’s a dopey change that actually means the two films are slightly different.
During this version, we occasionally hear the kids refer to the “sorcerer’s stone”, and these shots clearly aren’t just dubbed versions of the “philosopher” segments. That means the filmmakers needed to shoot two sets of takes for each market, so while I’m sure the scenes are very similar in both cuts, some differences have to occur.
The change seems especially odd given the amount of Brit-speak heard during the movie. For example, everyone says “Happy Christmas” instead of “Merry Christmas”, and “boogers” are called “bogies”. However, I understand that those bits are much less minor than the title of the film, so I can see why they stayed when the name changed. It still felt weird, though, to note some variations but not detect these changes.