What great reviews that last battle, huh? Congrats goes out to Fox Mulder, who moves on to the next round. But now it’s time for the final battle of Round 3! This next battle sees Zelda’s Kid Sister, who made it this far with her reviews of Eraserhead and The Exorcist. She faces off against Henry Swanson, who got here with Singin’ in the Rain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Today they take on a little lighter fare with the first Harry Potter flick, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone overseas). Read, vote, comment, enjoy! You have until Thursday. Below is the updated bracket. Click to make it bigger.
By Zelda’s Kid Sister
We all like to go back and rewatch old favorites. For most of us, watching a well-executed series flourish and grow is also an enjoyable experience. Combining the two practices, therefore, must also be something many of us enjoy doing, but, I would suggest that much may be lost in translation. Following a story from its beginning to its end, watching a series of events play out over a matter of years, necessarily alters our perception of the story as a whole, and in so doing, weakens our ability to go back and start all over again. I found this to be the case in going back to the very beginning and re-watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Beyond any annoying emotional feelings (“Look how tiny and wee and cute the trio is!”), I found it difficult to judge HP1 based on its own merit. It begs to be looked at from the perspective of its position within the larger narrative, so in some ways, that’s how I’ve been forced to treat it. Put another way: I tried really hard to pretend like I was seeing it for the first time, but I’m probably not going to fool anyone. SO, let’s just move on, shall we?
2001 saw the release of the film adaptation of the first book of J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful series about a boy wizard and his evil nemesis. Unknown kids, roughly the same age as Harry and his friends, were cast in the starring roles, and to support them, a veritable parade of the very finest England had to offer stepped into the shoes of the Hogwarts faculty and other adults. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone would serve as our introduction to Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), and in turn, as Harry’s introduction into a world he had no knowledge of, but was destined to be part of. Harry, you see, is a wizard, although he doesn’t know it. He’s been living uncomfortably under the roof of some awful relatives, the Dursleys (Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, and Harry Melling, all perfectly horrid), having been made an orphan at an early age. On his eleventh birthday, he comes to learn the truth about his life. His parents were part of a magical world in which they fought against the evil wizard Voldemort and lost. Harry himself ought to be dead, but something went awry, and in the wizarding world, Harry’s a celebrity: The Boy Who Lived. Suddenly, he finds himself on the way to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he makes a few friends, a few enemies, and ultimately discovers that the fight against Lord Voldemort is far from over.
And we’re off! There was probably never any actual question that this first film, directed by Chris Columbus, would be a smash hit. It certainly was, and the series as a whole made history in a variety of ways. Still, this first venture couldn’t entirely have predicted all that future success, and so it is a reasonably modest affair. It’s very rudimentary in a lot of ways, but for the most part, that is acceptable. It is an introduction, after all. It sets the stage. It gives us Harry’s back-story, such as it is, and it sets up all the necessary components of the saga that is to unfold later. Taken by itself in retrospect, it’s actually quite the tidy little picture. The visual effects are totally worthy of Rowling’s vision, the acting is solid, the story entertaining, and above all, it leaves us wanting more.
There’s so much to see in Harry’s world. Even after all this time, I was struck once again by how Diagon Alley, Hogwarts, the game of Quidditch, and the climactic series of challenges looked as though they’d sprung from the pages of the novel. Likewise, the score and the overall feel of the movie lend us a sense of wide-eyed wonder and joy that all this could really be possible. Alright, so maybe the troll’s a little silly-looking, and some parts of the Quidditch match look a little fake. A certain flatness, likewise, may be attributed to the fact that this was a new venture and a new world into which we were all stepping, or perhaps to the direction. Either way, it is the obvious care and respect of the world being created that makes this film look so wonderful.
That care and professionalism carry over into the performances of the cast as well. Choosing unknown children to helm a franchise is undoubtedly a risky proposition, but I think that the decision to gather together some truly superb adult actors to back the kids up was a brilliant move. With the likes of Richard Harris (Headmaster Dumbledore), Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), and Alan Rickman (Professor Snape) on the roster, you know you’re going to get a good show. The talents of the adults, in my opinion, elevate the abilities of the children. Radcliffe, along with his counterparts Rupert Grin (Ron Weasley) and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), while obviously still newbies, hit all their marks here and very seldom lapse into the kind of preciousness that one can sometimes expect from a “kid’s movie.” If their emotional investment lacks depth, well, they’re kids. They’ve got lots of growing to do, as do their characters. Ultimately, I’m just not sure that any known actors would have done a better job, particularly in this early stage where less range was required.
Like everything else here, the story itself is rudimentary. It’s a classic “unknown hero” scenario, with a previously unremarkable character finding himself thrust into a remarkable situation. The fun is in the details (like Quidditch and Wizard’s Chess), and in figuring out which way the battle lines are drawn. There are moments where a certain lack of polish can be seen, most notably in the final scene between Harry and Professor Quirrell (Ian Hart), which feels, at times, as though it were lifted from any Scooby-Doo episode ever written, but overall, the pacing is good and there seems to be an appropriate balance of humor and more serious matters. As has been previously mentioned, with this viewing in particular, I was truly grateful for the dearth of “cute” moments = that could so easily have taken over a “kid’s movie about magic.”
That over-simplification is the trap that audiences could have so easily fallen into with this film. Yes, it’s a movie about kids. And magic. But mainly, it’s a movie about good and evil; about heroes and villains. Even in these early days, we can see the bravery, loyalty and courage that are being instilled in Harry and his friends. We are made to understand that Lord Voldemort is a real threat, and that there is darkness in this magical world. These themes belong neither to adults nor children; they are part and parcel of humanity, whether real or imagined, and they are the strengths of the Harry Potter series. The first film of the franchise, even with its designated duty to set things up, still provides us with some big ideas and a taste of things to come. Above all, the purpose of a first installment is to whet its audience’s appetite for what comes next, and in that, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is eminently successful.
By Henry Swanson
My experience with the Harry Potter series is a pretty cursory one. I’ve never read the books, and up until now, I’d only seen each movie once in theaters. They kind of all mix together in my head, and while I enjoy them, they’re ultimately forgettable. However, I was still excited to revisit the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s been eleven years since I first watched it, so it was due for another viewing. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it holds up better than what I remembered, and I would even go so far as to say it ranks up there with the best of the fantasy films aimed at kids/young adults.
This is just a guess, but I’m assuming I don’t need to go over a lot of the basics of Harry Potter in general. He’s a kid who finds out he’s a wizard, so he goes off to wizard school and has all kinds of adventures. His main nemesis is an evil wizard named Voldemort who’s responsible for – among other things – the death of Harry’s parents. The Sorcerer’s Stone is the first entry in the series, and it shows the circumstances surrounding Harry’s enrollment into Hogwarts, the school of wizardry.
The first thing I’ll say about this movie is how great a choice Chris Columbus was for director. Being that he also made Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Bicentennial Man, it’s obvious he knows a few things about adventurous storytelling. In general, Harry Potter has a lot of material to sift through, so it really needed someone who could parse it out and put the best story on the screen. I’d say his work on Bicentennial Man proved him capable of handling a long movie with lots of stuff going on (argue the quality of Bicentennial Man all you want; I like it). The Sorcerer’s Stone has equal parts humor, adventure, and peril, and my hat goes off to Columbus for putting it together in a way that didn’t bore me to tears after the two-hour mark rolled around.
Speaking of adventure and peril, I think the Sorcerer’s Stone is a solid example of why filmmakers shouldn’t sell kids short. I miss the days when movies aimed at younger people didn’t condescend them by not showing death or real pain. I mean, every protagonist in a fantasy has to be in danger, but remember that part in The Neverending Story where Atreyu has to walk around dead bodies before action-guy-rolling through the Sphynx’s lazer beams? That scene always scared me as a kid because of the ominous atmosphere, but it also excited me. Return to Oz features a roomful of heads that are continuously rotated and put on a body depending on what mood the wearer is in; Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has the most disturbing boat ride caught on film; Who Framed Roger Rabbit? shows cartoons being dissolved alive, and then there’s that whole thing with Christopher Lloyd. There’s nothing in the Sorcerer’s Stone that’s on the level of any of those scenes, but (spoilerz!) a guy with a face growing out from the back of his head is pretty disturbing and used to great effect. Then there’s also the scene toward the end where Harry, Hermione, and Ron are forced to play a life-sized game of chess, and if they lose, they get smashed to bits. All I’m saying is that even though the movie is pretty light overall, I appreciate the fact that it doesn’t shy away from getting a little scary or dark when it needs to.
It might be a little obvious at this point, but Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson really sell their characters. Kid actors are notoriously hit-or-miss, but I don’t recall any moment in the movie where I wished they were coached a little more. If I had to single one of them out, I’d give a special nod to Watson for expertly toeing the line between confidence and obnoxious arrogance. It took a minute, but I warmed up to her after they got into a few predicaments.
A good example of feeling for her character while also getting my adventure kick is the troll encounter in the girls’ restroom. I think trolls are universally envisioned as stupid oafs, and it’s no different here. But it was a fun little scene that also set up the bond between the three kids. Harry and Ron went in the restroom to warn Hermione of danger, and they ended up beating a troll unconscious. Not bad for a couple of first years.
Some other, random things of note: Harry’s aunt and uncle are deplorable human beings. I forgot that the series actually started out with Harry basically living in a broom closet. Alan Rickman is hilarious and awesome as Snape, even if he’s not in the movie all that much. There’s always something going on behind his eyes, but it’s never clear exactly what. Hagrid is a fun character, and I love how he’s always moving the plot along by “accidentally” telling the kids things they’re not supposed to know.
The last thing I’ll mention is the use of CG. You might think I’m about to dump all over it, but hah! You’re wrong! The Sorcerer’s Stone is one of those movies that just couldn’t be made with practical effects. There’s just too much going on. The CG human models could have taken a beating after the fact, but their inclusion holds up because they’re never lingered on. Whenever a quidditch match is being played, digital players fly around all over the place. A lesser movie might have tried to showcase the horror that is late ‘90s – early ‘00s effects, but this one wisely never gives the audience more than a few glances here and there. Aside from the human CG models, I have no problem with the troll or the three-headed dog. All of that kind of stuff was done really well, and if I’m shutting up about them, you can believe they’re good.
Well, after watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the second time, I think I’m going to go through the entire series again. I remember liking how each movie got progressively darker, and I was also thankful that the acting abilities of the child actors translated well into their more adult-ish lives. I forgot how much I liked the first one, so if nothing else comes of this tourney, I can at least credit it with reminding me of a cool fantasy flick.