Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A look back at Harry Potter part I: The Sorcerer's Stone starts things off right.

This will be a six-part retrospective on the Harry Potter film series, covering films 1-6 (I think most Potter fans can remember the one that came out eight months ago...).  The first essay will be covering Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

I have long defended the Chris Columbus Harry Potter films.  Despite their kid-friendly nature and exposition-heavy narratives, they had to do the heavy lifting right from the get-go.  And in hindsight, with the series about to end, it is apparent that Chris Columbus's first two pictures had two major jobs to do: nail the casting and introduce the world at-large.  And in that respect, Christopher Columbus's films are triumphant successes.  I have said countless times over the years just what a miracle it was that the gigantic cast of youngsters and British character actors stayed intact over the course of eight films.  Aside from the death of Richard Harris in 2002, there was not a single cast change from the first film to the last.  And while few would expect anything but the best from the likes of Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, and Robbie Coltrane, the kids were where Columbus and company really hit pay-dirt.  That Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson all grew up to be capable actors and (it must be said) physically attractive young adults is a gift, that's even discounting the sheer luck that so many of the smaller supporting players (Bonnie Wright, Matthew Lewis, Tom Felton, etc) turned out to have the relative chops when they were needed (and yes, puberty was quite kind to them as well).  So before I get into the strengths and minuses of the first two pictures, let us acknowledge how much of a bloody miracle this cast was from the very beginning, a cast that Columbus deserves much credit for assembling.

So, moving onto the movies themselves, the biggest surprise of this marathon viewing is just how darn good the first film actually is.  Yes, it's a kid-friendly picture and yes, the special effects aren't always perfect (the flying scenes are pretty terrible), but the picture delivers in spades as a character-driven origin story.  If we are to treat the Harry Potter films as a long television miniseries (perhaps season-long run of twenty-one 55-minute episodes), then Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is basically the three-part pilot.  It immediately establishes that this world will be an insular one.  These films do not take place on our Earth per-se.  There are no pop-culture references, no Internet, no popular music cuts, no dated slang and (thank goodness...) no "gee, I wish I was special so that cute girl in school would talk to me" rubbish.  It takes itself absolutely seriously, opening with a moody and emotionally complicated prologue between Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid that immediately sets the tone and indirectly hints at the stakes.  What is interesting about this opening is that it immediately introduces us to three of the main authority figures at Hogwarts.  Right off the bat, we have a solid grasp on three of the four main adult characters who will be guiding us for the next seven school years.

The Dursley scenes that follow are a necessary evil, and I will admit that I nearly quit reading the first book after the first 75 pages because the unrelenting cruelty of the Dursley clan was so off-putting to me.  In the movie, it's over-and-done with in about fifteen minutes, after which Hagrid rescues our orphan hero and we're  off to the races.  From here on, it's pretty much all exposition and character introduction (complete with John Hurt dropping some layered hints in that wonderfully creaky voice of his), as we meet the principle kids (Harry, Ron, Hermoine, Neville, and Draco) and are reintroduced to Hagrid and McGonagall, with the added bonus of meeting the ill-tempered Professor Snape, who is our fourth major representation of Hogwarts (and grownup) authority.  What is surprising revisiting these pictures is how genuinely off-putting Snape is for the first couple films.  Yes, he is supposed to be outwardly abusive, but Rickman is unafraid to make him genuinely unpleasant.  We'll find out why he hates Potter as much as he does in later films, but for now Snape is the ultimate representation of the teacher who made your life hell for no reason.  So while the film series vastly expands its character roster over the years, this introduction immediately tells us who we should be primarily invested.

So with the characters introduced and the school year begun, the picture basically relaxes.  There is no ticking clock, no overriding threat, and next-to-no real tension in this first picture.  But what it does have is plenty of time to let our young heroes interact and get to know each other, and by-proxy let us get to know them.  This is one of four Harry Potter films (along with parts 2, 4, and 6) that are over 2.5 hours long, and the length here is a benefit of actually getting to watch these characters interact without the burden of plot-exposition and gratuitous action spectacle.  Other than the Quidditch matches (god, how I hate Quidditch) and the climax, there is very little action in this first Harry Potter picture.  The picture doesn't have much of an overriding arc for Potter himself, as the emotional climax comes a good half-hour before the end of the film, as Dumbledore confronts Potter about living with ghosts as opposed to embracing what's good in the present.  But the first picture remains effective as a genuinely entertaining and spirited travelogue of sorts.

The central conflict/mystery is clumsily-handled.  Harry and his friends make outrageous leaps in putting the would-be puzzle together that seems to imply that they read the book.  And the entire scheme that must be thwarted is pretty much irrelevant (Dumbledore basically rigged it so the Sorcerer's Stone couldn't be recovered by the forces of Voldemort anyway, so why did Harry have to stop Professor Quirrell from stealing it?).  And there is quite a bit of kid-friendly exposition ("Harry Potter has been made Seeker of the Quidditch team!") that drags the film down from time to time, and the special effects are well... they got better pretty quickly.    And, frankly, the epilogue is a crock, as Dumbledore arbitrarily awards 170 points to Gryffindor in order to allow them to win the 'House Cup'.  In the book, it was basically retribution for all of the points that Snape had taken away from Gryffindor out of spite.  But absent those moments from the book, the film's climax plays like hardcore favoritism.  But those are minor issues that do not overshadow a successful introduction.

Warts and all, the picture works splendidly at what it is: an introduction to an imaginative fantasy world, with time well-spent on characters who make us want to go back next time.  The adults are in top form (Robbie Coltrane nearly steals the film), and Emma Watson becomes a movie star in just the first entry (I could make a prurient comment here, but if you're reading this, you probably don't need convincing).  Point being, taken alongside what came after and outside of the shadow of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a marvelously entertaining fantasy adventure, with a genuine kid-friendly vibe that operates as a gateway drug for the later, darker installments.

Scott Mendelson


Anonymous said...

How can you hate Quidditch? Do you actually hate the game or just the way it's portrayed in the movies?

Scott Mendelson said...

Actually, it's far less frustrating in the films. It's not so much the sport as it is the way it's used in the books. It's a way to pad out the stories and acts as a commercial break of sorts. I can't count the number of times in the books (mostly the first three) where the characters are about to learn something incredibly important but... WAIT, we have to play Quidditch now!!


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