The Good: Firm sense of "universe," Good DVD extras
The Bad: Erratic acting, Erratic special effects, Simple and obvious story, Light on character development.
The Basics: Underwhelming a new viewer, Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone is far more erratic and child-oriented than impressive.
In my lifetime, I had a few plans, at least for my movie-viewing. How I spend my free time is a big deal to me, usually because I end up doing things I later get to use for work (reviewing). One of my many plans was to never waste my time with the Harry Potter Saga. Years ago when the books were huge, I was pretty offended that they were being lauded as great literature for children AND adults when it is my basic theory that the enthusiasm children were developing for reading by Harry Potter was not being mirrored by authors that adults would be challenged by (in other words, a reading revolution in adults where adults are enthused about reading something the average fourth grader could read was not a step forward in my mind). For sure, some of this was personal (as a contemporary author, one always hopes their works would be the one to usher in such a revolution), but most of it was a sense of social concern with the "dumbing down" of America and humanity.
So, in addition to not bothering with the books, I had no special desire to see any of the Harry Potter films. I had The Lord Of The Rings and that was sufficiently complex, spectacular and adult for me. So, when I found myself watching numerous previews for Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince beside a woman who squeezed my hand enthusiastically with every new frame, I knew my plans were about to abruptly change. To prepare me for the new Harry Potter film, my new wife has taken to getting me to watch the prior five cinematic installments. When there is an eleven and a half year gap between partners, one needs to remember that there are entirely different things each partner has grown up on. So, I sat down with her and watched Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone. And the thing is, even going into the experience with minimal bias (I tried to clear my mind for my wife's sake), the result of our viewing was being underwhelmed. Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone is a remarkably mediocre movie.
Despite the attention and eagerness fans of the franchise might have for Harry Potter appearing on the big screen as an obvious blockbuster, Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone is an erratic film which is deeply flawed in some places and simply underwhelming in others. For example, the special effects oscillate between the fantastic - there is a snake in the beginning which is flawless and impressive - and the utterly ridiculous, as they are during the Quidditch match when several people are flying on broomsticks and there are awkward CG-stretches and maneuvers. The amusing thing here is that even my partner admits that storywise and effect wise, the film has these flaws, yet there is a strange reluctance to do anything but laud these films. As per my usual, it is worth noting that this review is strictly for the film version of Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone and any issues with the way it is translated from the novel to the screen shall not be addressed here. I had a remarkably pure viewing of the film, as I knew nothing of Harry Potter (other than the obvious success of the books and films) before viewing the film.
Harry Potter is deposited at his only living relatives, the Dursleys, after being rescued by the ancient Professor Dumbledore. At his eleventh birthday, owls swarm the Dursley house - where Harry is kept in a room under the stairs - depositing invitations for Harry Potter to come to Hogwart's School Of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Against the wishes of his abusive aunt and uncle, Potter leaves with the giant Hagrid, goes shopping for magical supplies and heads off to Hogwart's. On the way, Harry Potter discovers his parents have left him a small fortune and that virtually everyone in the magic world seems to know who he is. He meets Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger on the train to Hogwart's and soon after his arrival, he meets an arrogant young magic student, Draco Malfoy.
At Hogwart's, Harry, Ron and Hermione find themselves in the same House (essentially magical fraternity/sororities) and they discover that Professors bear strong allegiances to their Houses from when they were students. Harry learns that a vault he saw Hagrid recover an object from was later broken into and as he, Ron and Hermione begin to learn to use magic, it seems not everything is on-the-level at Hogwart's. The trio begins to unravel a mystery surrounding forbidden rooms and a mysterious object at Hogwart's, while Harry and Draco face off and Harry becomes involved with the school sport, Quidditch.
If it seems like I spend excessive space on the setup of the Harry Potter world, you have correctly divined one of the serious problems I have with Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone. This film is only peripherally about the "sorcerer's stone," instead, it would much more accurately be entitled "Harry Potter And The First Quidditch Match" as much more time is spent with Harry arriving at Hogwart's, being "salted" into his House, developing his broom-driving skills and equipping himself long before the first mention of the sorcerer's stone or even the appearance of a mystery at Hogwart's. And here, the film is a tough sell to adults and experienced cinephiles. The only reason most will have patience to endure this film is because it is establishing a full sense of the Harry Potter universe which is then built upon in later films (presumably), much like the way viewers are educated to the nature of Hobbits in The Fellowship Of The Ring; it does not advance the story significantly, but it does enrich the full sense of the setting the viewer is cast into.
Because Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone is essentially a children's fantasy movie, it is remarkably unchallenging. Good triumphs over the appearance of evil, or at least people who are abusing the system, the heroes overcome and simple victories - like whose House wins the annual contest for supremacy at Hogwart's - are predictably determined. There is very little complexity to the film or to the concepts behind it. Rather decently, almost everything is explained sufficiently to make sense, like vernacular - "muggles" - and backstory issues like what happened to Harry Potter's parents and how he came to bear the lightning bolt scar on his forehead (and why it still looks fresh years later).
The larger mysteries left by Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone are enough for viewers to want to come back to, most notably a relationship between the young magic user, Harry Potter, and the unstoppable force of evil his presence alone appeared to have stopped once, Lord Voldemort. There are minor mysteries which I am assured come out later on - like why Hagrid is not supposed to be able to use magic, but does anyway - but this film was not engaging enough to make me truly yearn to know the answers. Moreover, some of the elements of Harry Potter seem out of place in the limited time of the film, like the appearance of a ghost, Nearly Headless Nick (played by John Cleese).
John Cleese's appearance brings up an intriguing issue with Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone; the film has remarkable disparities in acting. Alan Rickman, for example, plays Professor Snape, who is characterized as having an affinity for the dark arts and who instantly takes to Draco (making him an apparent enemy of Harry Potter). Rickman is blandly, monolithically "evil" only in that he storms around with a dour expression for much of the film and he challenges Harry Potter and his friends. This is hardly a stretch for Rickman and, like Cleese, seems somewhat hammy as opposed to a genuinely deep or unique performance. This, like the casting of Richard Harris, Maggie Smith and Robbie Coltrane (Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid, respectively), seems more like the function of great casting as opposed to inspired acting.
And herein lies the problem with the principles, as well. While many might argue that the leads - Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron), and Emma Watson (Hermione) - grow into their roles in subsequent films, in Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone their acting is erratic and childlike. Grint, for example, is awful at many moments where he is forced to bug out his eyes with over-the-top, obvious comic relief attempts that make him seem more like a child actor of the silent movie era than one from a new millennium film. Similarly, Watson's performance often involves simply delivering her dialogue in the most prissy voice possible and there are moments where she performs opposite virtual characters where her eyeline is nowhere near where it is supposed to be.
Ultimately, it falls to Radcliffe to hold much of the movie together and he wanders through the film, subject to multiple special effects - like one that puts him in an invisibility cloak - that work with only mixed results. This is not the finest performance by a child actor ever and as the audience becomes familiar with the magical world of the Harry Potter films, we need an actor who is a bit more stable on the fundamentals than Radcliffe is to sell the reality of the fantastic world he finds himself in. So, this film flops some on that front.
On DVD, the two-disc version is loaded with extras. There are featurettes on how the film was translated from the book, special effects and casting. Fans will enjoy the bonus features, but they do little to solve the problems with the overall source material.
Ironically, my wife likened this to the first season of Friends, where it is not as good as it gets, but it seems like it would be necessary for where the series goes. Then I realized, I didn't recommend the first season of Friends because later seasons adequately repeat everything that is essential to know. As a result, it is pretty easy to say that for those who want to distill the Harry Potter series to the best films, they may effectively pass by this volume and get the gist in future films when some of the initial flaws - both in acting and effects - are worked out. But if the predictability of the plot of this first one is any indication, I hold little hope for the future stories.
For other fantasy films, please check out my reviews of:
The Nightmare Before Christmas
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© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.