Saturday, November 20, 2010

Film Review: Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

"Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

With the release of the final Harry Potter adventure in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" (2010) I thought it would be interesting (for me at least) to go back to the beginning as we get ready to say our goodbyes to Harry and the gang.

The last time I saw "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001) was back in theatres. I hadn't seen the film since and forgot a great many things. I kind of lost my way with the series, after the third film I just stopped watching them. Not that I have anything against these films, it is just they got lost in the shuffle of other releases. I plan on going back and watching all of the films in the series.What amazed me on a second viewing of the film was simply how magical (no pun intended) it is.

Director, Chris Columbus, tells this story with a wide-eyed child's fascination. The movie moves at a high energy pace and is filled with wonderment and joy. This wizard world nearly explodes on-screen and captivates us. The movie has an almost spellbinding quality in the way these characters are introduced to us as we witness their special powers.

I'm sure much of these qualities were in J.K. Rowling's novels (which I'm sorry to say I've never read) but much credit has to be given to the film's screenwriter Steve Kloves because he is able to retain so much of what is magical to readers of the series onto the screen. That is not an easy feat. How often do book lovers complain when their favorite book is adapted to the screen? I'm willing to bet most readers would agree with me that Kloves has done a fine job adapting these books. There has not been a strong backlash against the films by devoted readers. That must mean something, right?

The film starts off with Prof. Dumbledore (Richard Harris) and Prof. McGonagall (Maggie Smith) delivering baby Harry to the Dursley's, his aunt (Fiona Shaw) and uncle (Richard Griffiths). They have a child of their own, Dudley (Harry Melling). It is clear from this sequence (which I completely forgot) that Harry is not one of us. We learn something has happened to his parents and these wizards feel it is in Harry's best interest to lead a normal life and know nothing about his wizardly ways until he is old enough to understand.

At this point the film almost takes a Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist turn. Poor Harry (now played by Daniel Radcliffe) is neglected and treated unfairly by the Dursley's who lavish attention on their rotund son. In one sequence it is Dudley's birthday, the house is cluttered with presents. But young Dudley has a suspicious look in his eyes. He surveys the presents and angrily declares "how many presents are here?". His father, rather intimidated, cries "35". He assures Dudley he even counted them himself. But you see that is the same amount Dudley received the previous year. He demands there be more presents each year. The things kids have to put up with.

Of course when Harry's birthday comes around there is no celebration. Harry is the outcast of the family. He sleeps in a closet underneath the stairwell. But it doesn't matter because on this day young Harry will learn the truth when a messenger is sent, Rubeus (Robbie Coltrane), to tell Harry now is the time he must attend Hogwarts, a wizard academy.

Harry now learns he is a wizard and the true nature of his parents, whom he thought died in a car accident. He also learns who killed them, a evil wizard who still strikes fear in the residents of Hogwarts that they dare not say his name. He also, for the first time, makes friends; Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). Hermione is one of those know-it-all students but has a great talent for spells. Meanwhile Harry and Ron are still learning as they go along. With Ron almost serving as comic relief.

The interesting thing about the story is like a Charles Dickens novel, Harry is actually the least interesting character. All the surrounding characters are much more fascinating because they have mastered their skills. Harry's background is a mystery and hasn't yet become the great wizard others expect him to be. Even Hermione has more skills than Harry.

A large part of the charm for "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone" is just to sit back and watch this world unfold. To merely witness all the special effects and dazzling creative talent which went into making this world seem real. From a visual standpoint "Harry Potter" is a knockout.

Since I am only able to judge the first three films, I've always felt if there is a downside to these beginning films it is that they were kind of weak on plot. "Harry Potter" does a very good job establishing who Harry is and introducing the other characters but after we get past all of the introductions not much happens. There is some story involving the sorcerer's stone and a belief one of the teachers, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) wants to kill Harry. But the movie almost glides over this part of the story as it mainly takes delights in showing us the goings on at Hogwarts. For instance there are pictures hanging on the walls in which the subjects actually move and change their positions. The stairwells are also constantly shifting. This helps give the building its own personality and become one of the characters in the story.

Chris Columbus is no stranger to directing mainstream Hollywood blockbusters, though I don't think he has ever directed something of this caliber. He was the man behind the first "Home Alone" (1990) and its sequel, "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York" (1992). He also directed the Robin Williams comedy "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993) and the Julia Roberts tearjerker "Stepmom" (1998). I'm not exactly sure what made the studio think this guy would be a good choice for "Harry Potter" however, given his credits. But Columbus does live up to expectations.

Steve Kloves hasn't had much of a career outside of Harry Potter, he has written all of the following sequels in the series. Prior credits include "Wonder Boys" (2000) which is also a wonderful movie in a completely different way. And "The Fabulous Baker Boys" (1989).

If I pretend the other Harry Potter films don't exist yet, "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone" suggest a wonderful adventure is ahead of us. Great secrets are going to be revealed about "the one who must be nameless", who killed Harry's parents. It also suggest Harry will become a strong and powerful wizard and learn much about about his true identity. Though, knowing what we know now, certain scenes have a nostalgic appeal to them.

I'm actually excited to go back and rewatch all of these movies. I can't wait to finally see all the dangers Harry, Hermione and Ron will face. What amazing possibilities lie ahead.

Of course upon its release "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone" received much critical praise and became a box-office smash. It was the top grossing film of 2001 taking in nearly 318 million dollars, surpassing the first "Lord of the Rings", that other great epic adventure. It even went on to win three Academy Award nominations (for music, costume design and art direction).

This is a wonderful, dazzling spectacular film that children are going to enjoy and most of the adults will to. I personally can't wait to continue watching these films. We're going to miss you Harry.