Saturday, July 11, 2009

Franchise Flashback: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

With this Wednesday's release of the sixth Harry Potter film, it's the perfect time to revisit the franchise from the beginning to see how it holds up and to chart how it has grown.

By 2001, the Harry Potter books were a full blown cultural phenomenon, with four books published and three more on the way, each published book setting records on the bestseller lists. And they were good, too. Critics, children and parents adored author J.K. Rowling’s imaginative look at a young boy, Harry Potter, and his experiences at Hogwarts, a magical British boarding school, and the deft mixing of Dahl-like macabre with the swift thrills of a modern blockbuster. So it was only inevitable that the books would become modern blockbusters. The first, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was released in the fall of 2001 and quickly became one of the biggest hits of the post-9/11 weeks.

Now, eight years later, I returned to this movie, wondering what I would find. The movie is older and so am I. Which one of us has changed? Despite my trepidation, the movie holds up remarkably well. Director Chris Columbus directs with a crisp, storybook style that’s rather unremarkable but has the benefit of showing off the resplendent production design by Stuart Craig. The walls of Hogwarts are vibrant and wondrous with floating props (and ghosts), shifting stairs, and a vast population of moving artwork. There’s a real feeling of magic here, awfully entertaining, but is capable of being awfully generic. More inventiveness went into designing the costumes and sets than finding ways to film them.

But this is, after all, an introduction. We, as the filmmakers themselves, are getting our bearings in the cinematic world that is being spun from Rowling’s words. This is the first time we heard the notes of the tremendous score by John Williams, a work of cinematic scoring that equals his great themes for the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Superman series. This is the first time we’ve seen the charming child actors who are the leads. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson are almost impossibly charming – and cute – little actors, fully capable of the task before them: holding their own against a solid cast of British character actors. Richard Harris (Dumbledore), Maggie Smith (McGonagall), and Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) are the lead adults inhabiting their literary characters with warmth and perfection. (Speaking of perfection, there’s Alan Rickman as Professor Severus Snape. In a perfectly cast film, he’s the most perfect). Among all the cast the lines are performed with perfection, tripping across the tongues in melodious British flavor. Between the score and the cast, this would be a movie great just to listen to if the visuals weren’t so strong.

This is the first time the camera has shown us the accoutrements of this world, a vivid and imaginative world that has rightfully taken its place among the greatest fantasy settings in cinema history, the kind of settings that cause reverence and awe among filmgoers both young and old. This film has a childlike sense of wonder at its world, and also a more kid-friendly tone. As such, the story is slighter than the others to date; the pacing is a little awkward. What works in the book doesn’t always work on the screen. The filmmakers would gain confidence in later movies to bend and condense more than they did here. Scenes of exposition drag and the finale is a bit too puzzle-like to be truly engaging.

But still, I was enchanted with the imagination of the proceedings, the red-blooded adventure, the charm of the visuals (even the few effects that now – already – feel dated), and even the nostalgia that is already settling around the film, cloaking it with a protective layer of memory. There’s real magic here, though, in the way little moments charm and big moments cause the heart to swell. It doesn’t always work moment to moment (every so often it looks like a movie about people in funny hats) but it settles satisfyingly in the end. It’s a solid start to what has shaped up to be a great franchise.

Stay tuned to this very blog for further posts on previous Potters which should pop up like clockwork through the new release, culminating with a review of the new film late next week.

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