Warner Bros. didn't mess around when they started the Harry Potter franchise. They got a seasoned director, Chris Columbus, they made sure the original writer, J. K. Rowling, was happy, and they made sure all the fans were on board. They knew - with as much certainty as anyone can have in the movie business - that they had a sure-fire hit on their hands: A series of films that would span 10 years, gross a trillion dollars, and - if done right - earn the little wizard his own spot in movie history.
Whether they accomplished this or not is a question I'll leave unanswered for now. Instead I'll throw myself into the first adventure of Harry Potter...
IT'S THE ONE WHERE...
Harry Potter finds out that he's a wizard, begins his first year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, meets new best friends Hermione and Ron, gets an arch enemy, and learns about the dark wizard Voldemort, who killed his parents. There's a giant dog with 3 heads, we see our first quidditch game, and there's a guy with an extra face in the back of his head.
When I saw The Philosopher's Stone back in 2001 I was somewhat underwhelmed. Mostly because that whole wizard universe seemed utterly ridiculous and completely uninteresting to me. So it came as a bit of a surprise that I actually enjoyed the film the second time around. As the Warner Bros. shield spins into the frame, and the first few notes from John Williams' theme play in the background, even the most battle-hardened film geek will feel a tingle of anticipation, and I'm not ashamed to say that I did too.
Unfortunately the opening of the film is more than a little rough. When we're introduced to Harry and his foster family it almost feels like we're watching The Benny Hill Show. The scenes are absurdly overacted, and every conceivable aspect exaggerated to biblical proportions. If I had come to this film completely blank, without any previous knowledge of the production, the characters or the plot, I would have done a stone cold walkout right then and there. This part of the film is almost unbearable to watch. What the hell were they thinking? The only saving grace during these moments is Daniel Radcliffe as Harry himself. He's a charming, expressive little actor, and he brings us hope that better things are on the way. Luckily we escape the dungeon of chainsaw subtlety very quickly, and after that the film wastes no time setting up the world of Potter.
Which brings us to the film's primary flaw: There's no story.
Sure, there's some nonsense about a powerful stone, and there's also a conspiracy, but this is basically two and a half hours of introduction to the Potter universe. The philosopher's stone is not even mentioned by name until 98 minutes into the film!
The only reason this is bearable, is because the film moves at such a brisk pace. It quickly outlines what kind of world the story is going to take place in in, it sets up the rules of magic, it shows us the school, the brewing friendship among the lead characters, even the family history of several players, plus it also gets around to explaining the rules of a popular sport! When you look at it like that, it's pretty impressive how much the film manages to squeeze in. I also love the way it establishes Harry's street cred: Every time his name is mentioned, the room goes quiet!
The stars of this film are the three young wizards. The first scene with Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) brought a smile to my face, even though I still think Ron should just come out of the closet, and let Harry and Hermione have at it, but apparently this is not the direction we're exploring here. All three actors display a cute, wide-eyed innocence that serves the story well, only Watson is a bit off. She's too precocious, and she enunciates everything a little too carefully. She'll grow into the part soon enough, but in this film she's often a bit grating.
I should comment on some of the grown-up actors as well, but I'll save that for the upcoming instalments.
Seeing as this is a world of wizards and magic, the film is surprisingly subdued in its visual approach. It's pretty colorful, but it never loses its grip on reality. Cinematography John Seale - the man responsible for such grounded classics as Witness (1985), Rain Man (1988), and Dead Poets Society (1989) - keeps his images clean and fresh, and never resorts to the kind of heavy post-production manipulation we've grown accustomed to in recent Hollywood films. The production design is also quite impressive, but again it has this sort of semi-realistic finish, as if the film is conscious about easing us into its universe.
The visual effects were far better than I remembered. It's really only one element that fails the film: The completely computer generated characters. The troll, the man/horse thingy, every time anyone flying a broomstick is replaced with a CGI rag-doll... The rest of the effects hold up very well.
Before I finish up here, I should also point out a problem that I feared would plague the rest of the franchise, even as I saw the film for the first time: Harry's new enemy, Draco Malfoy. Actor Tom Felton puts the entire The Bold and The Beautiful cast to shame with his overly simple portrayal of Malfoy. He snickers every time something bad happens to Potter, and looks pissed when good things happen. That's it. Not exactly subtle. The character needed a hell of a lot more groundwork in this first film, a flaw which will come back to haunt the franchise later... But I'm getting ahead of myself.
When I had my first encounter with Harry Potter back in 2001 I expected to be blow away. I wasn't. I walked away pretty disappointed. The second time I saw the film I knew what to expect, and I knew how it fits into the overall story of Harry Potter. It was a much more pleasant experience. I'm not going to call this a GREAT film, but I actually think it worked "sort of okay" this time around.
I would, however, be remiss if I didn't point out that some people will never get past their initial reaction to this film, and because of this they will never get into the Potter universe. Some folks suggested combining the first two novels to a single film, in order to get to the good stuff a little earlier. I'll have a better idea about that theory after I've screened Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), which is up next.
Onwards and upwards!
Feature running time: 152 minutes
Number of pages in novel: 223
Hermione Hotness Factor: 0/10 (anything else would be wrong)
The Weasley Twins Creepiness Factor: 2/10
Voldemort-o-meter level: Mild. Only one scary scene.
The scene where Harry, Hermione, and Ron play wizard chess and almost die!