Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Here we are again. The start of another foolhardy review crusade to distract myself from the daily kicks in the nuts that life provides. 8 films, 8 sweary reviews. See you on the other side.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

… aka The Sorceror’s Stone. Why? Some bullshit U.S. book title reason. It’s not, as I’ve seen widely reported, because Americans are thicky thick thick stupid cheeseburgers who wouldn’t know what the word “philosopher” meant if it flew in on a bald eagle. Having gained unbelievable success by ripping off Dr. Henry Jones Jr.it was a dead cert that Rowling’s Potter books would become films. When it was officially announced, I remember being incredibly excited at the prospect. How were they going to do Quidditch? Why was Snape the guy from Die Hard? These questions and more buzzed around my head. I liked it a lot when it came out. A hefty 12 years later, it’s time to revisit it with my critical eyes screwed in.

“You’re a wizard, Harry!”

Neglected 11 year old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) lives with his Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw), Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) and his spoiled cousin Dudley (Harry Melling). Suddenly, a hairy giant by the name of Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) tells Harry that he’s a wizard and carts him off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where he is to learn magic. Harry discovers that not only is there a whole magical world running in parallel to our own, but that in this new world he’s known as “The Boy Who Lived” and famous for surviving a spell that murdered his parents and inadvertently defeating the evil Lord Voldemort. Along the way, Harry meets the shabby Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and know-it-all Hermione (Emma Watson) and enlists their help to uncover some dark goings-on at the school. Philosopher’s Stone sets the pattern that the first few films stuck to. There’s something going on at the school and Harry, Ron and Hermione have to work together to save the day. It’s like an Enid Blyton/Famous Five type thing crossed with The Worst Witch (a property which I’m surprised hasn’t rung its lawyers over some uncanny similarities). It’s a classic plotline- an everyday kid gets drafted into a magical land and becomes a hero of said magical land. Philosopher’s Stone is smartly written enough that you won’t notice it’s basically a retread of every ’80s fantasy movie ever.

There are two things that completely justify the decision to turn the books into films on their own. 1) the cast and 2) the John Williams score. The cast are almost uniformly brilliant. We have some proper thespian heavyweights in the forms of Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Griffiths and John Hurt who all pop up to be brilliant at various points during the film. I do wish the kid actors were better though. Daniel Radcliffe hadn’t learned to act yet and is often shown up by Henry Melling’s hammy turn as Dudley. Rupert Grint is almost alright, as is the precocious Emma Watson. At its worst, some of the acting is school play standard. Bad child acting is a real bugbear of mine. In terms of adult acting, Rickman’s Snape almost manages to walk away with the entire film. It’s a great performance that verges on parody at times, with him drawling out certain words and taking dramatic pauses whenever the hell he feels like it.

The rest of the film is exactly the sort of fantasy adventure that kids lap up. The magical world we’re given here is amazingly designed and wonderfully realised. It’s one of the great movie universes that I wish I could live in instead of a dreary, rainy Welsh town. The sleuthing around school and working on a big mystery is a tried and tested kids’ staple and it just works. Quidditch also looks like a hell of a lot of fun. The Williams score is bloody brilliant too. Easily as iconic as his work on films like Jurassic Park. It just lifts the film to a higher plane. I genuinely think the aforementioned Quidditch match wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun as it is without Williams being whimsical in the background.

Despite a lot of elements working fantastically well, there’s just something holding the whole film back. It’s an above-average children’s film, but that’s about it. I think it’s the fact that it’s aimed squarely and solely at kids. Whilst I do agree that yes, a children’s book should be turned into a children’s film, this kid targeting is the special Hollywood kind of kid pandering that laser-targets its chosen kiddie demographic and to hell with anyone over the age of 15. None of the interesting little character moments or nice little backstories are explored. Outside of the writing, some of the effects are god-awful and were pretty ropey even back in 2001. The troll scene especially loses nearly all of the excitement it’s expected to create but being a huge, unconvincing lump of pixels. Quidditch suffers too, but not to the same extent.

“It does not do to dwell on dreams, Harry, and forget to live.”

Philosopher’s Stone is a decent start to the Potter franchise. It’s a bit unsteady at times but it creates a fantastic world and has a real sense of fun about it.

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