Well it’s the start of Harry Potter Week (and a half) and my journey into the Potter-verse has been booted into the broomstick straddling position by The Philosopher’s Stone. That would be Sorcerer’s Stone to any US readers I may have. Why the different names? Because apparently someone at Warner thought the US citizens wouldn’t know what a Philosopher was. It’s good that they have that confidence in their audience. So how do I feel this film kicks off the biggest money spinning kids franchise of the decade? Click the jump to find out.
Before I kick off my review here’s a little history of me and my relationship with Harry Potter. I used to work in Toys R Us back in 2001 when Potter-mania kicked off. We had this massive display devoted to the miniature wizard in training that played John Williams Harry Potter theme non-stop, all day long. For about 6 months. Man it got tiresome. Years later I went to work for Electronic Arts. Nothing special, just QA. For the last 2 and a half months I worked there I worked on the Harry potter and the Half-Blood Prince game. First, I’m really sorry, it wasn’t my fault. Second, I learned way too much about Harry Potter working on that game. To the point where I was watching Philosopher’s Stone tonight and being shocked at how well I knew the layout of Hogwarts. After leaving EA I started working at HMV and before too long the game I worked on was on the shelf and the dvds and blu rays of the films were pouring in. I can’t escape the guy wherever I work it seems. One of my fears about eventually writing films is that one day I’ll be dragged into working on something Harry potter related. Suffice to say, without having seen the films or read the books, I am not a fan.
Now whilst I know a lot about the Harry Potter universe, what I do know is more limited to locations, spells, names and the logic of the universe. As I haven’t seen the films all the events, barring those of Half-Blood Prince, will be new to me. Whilst I’m not a fan, and I don’t expect to instantly enjoy these films, I will be going in with my usual open mind. Need proof that I can end up liking a film I thought would suck? Read my Sherlock Holmes review. I honestly didn’t expect much of anything from that and ended up quite enjoying it.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, as the starting point of the series, has the task of introducing us to the characters and the universe of Hogwarts whilst at the same time weaving a compelling story enjoyable for both children and the adults who have been forced to see it. That’s actually a very difficult task. Try to think of how many children’s film franchises actually last beyond their first, maybe second film, without a major dip in quality. If the initial set up is poor there can be a lot less to work with in the sequels and before long they start feeling unnecessary. Harry Potter does have one advantage though. By the time this film was sign the series of books was already in full swing. The episodic nature of the books helps tell a story where each film is a genuine sequel to the last. They’re all tied together with one main story strand and, to JK Rowling’s credit, she’s developed a somewhat rich enough universe to sustain this format. This episodic format is one that I think will help the films maintain my interest as they progress. That said, this film doesn’t get off to too great a start.
I don’t think it’s the story itself that hurts it. As contrived as it is, it is full of magical things to keep the kids occupied and the story is structured as a mystery adventure which is generally a good way to keep the parents at least slightly interested. The script on the other hand does let the film down. Obviously I am unsure how the books plot out the breadcrumb trails that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) follow on their seemingly year long investigation into the mystery of You Know Who (Voldemort of course) and what he wants with the Philosopher’s stone. If it’s anything like how the film plots it out then they really should have strayed from the source material. every single clue they come across is either by chance, some random magic event or, most often, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) just blurting it out. They barely figure anything out for themselves, and whilst it’s fair that they are only 11 year olds so how much could they find out, that doesn’t make for particularly interesting protagonists. They literally just go from one scene to the next stumbling along clues and then following where that leads them until the trail goes cold again, then Hagrid says something he shouldn’t have and off they go again.
The introduction works well enough to give us a reason to root for Harry He’s been raised by pretty nasty relatives his whole life. Left on their doorstep as a baby after his parents were killed by Voldemort, Harry is forced to sleep in the cupboard under the stairs. He’s treated badly and made to cook breakfast to order while his Aunt and Uncle dote and pamper his cousin Dudley. Apart from the trio of a wizard, a witch and a giant dropping Harry off at his uncles doorstep and saying “This child will be famous and/or special” (Nothing like straight out telling us) we see that Harry has some form of natural magical ability. He talks to a snake and makes glass vanish causing his cousin to fall into the reptile display. Harry has no idea how to control his magic though but, unfortunately for the local glazing industry, he’s not the sort to go making windows vanish just cos he can. To the films credit, beyond broomstick flying, Harry does very little magic himself. Generally when magic is needed to save the day it’s his more versed friends that cast the spells. It would have been all to easy to make him a master wizard by the end of the film.
A lot of the film relies on the performances of the supporting cast of British thespians such as Richard Harris, Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman. It’s certainly not relying on the performances of any of the children. I probably shouldn’t be so harsh on child actors but not a single one, aging from 11 to 16, seems to be able to portray a convincing human being. Their performances are so wooden I fully expect to see them whittled down and on the shelf of Olivander’s Wand Shop in the following films. Even Daniel Radcliffe, who totally didn’t get the part because of his families involvement in the film… oh no, fails to render a single emotion in a way that makes him bearable to watch. All sense of wonder of this bizarre world he is being introduced to for the first time is lost thanks to this one “be amazed” look he pulls all the time. It doesn’t help that the script doesn’t call for him to be amazed by anything after the first 30 minutes though.
Special effects are largely adequate but whenever something more complex than scenery replacement or sparkly magic glows is required things fall apart. There’s a sequence with a cave troll smashing up the girls toilets (There’s a Gary Glitter joke in there somewhere) that just falls flat because the troll looks like he was made for some 90s tv show. The Quidditch set piece in the middle of the film also loses some of it’s impact thanks to some shoddy green screen and really, really bad CGI kids. Some of them look like they were inserted into the scene using models from the games. I don’t know where to put the blame on this but seeing as director Chris Columbus had very little experience with special effects on this scale I’d imagine he wasn’t prepared for how much work they really involve and as such allowed some less than stellar effects to go through.
Now don’t get me wrong, the film isn’t a total whitewash. The universe is creatively designed even if it is another Alice In Wonderland world, by which I mean a story in which a seemingly normal person is transposed into a magical world. They even run down a “Rabbit hole” in the form of a wall leading to a secret train station platform. The leap of faith to accept a fantasy world as it were. The efforts to make you feel sympathy for harry at the start are very strong and you will want to see his adoptive family get their comeuppance at some point. Alan Rickman is in pure 100% pure ham mode, even if he is playing an antagonistic role again. John Williams score isn’t his best but it hits all the key parts it needs to. I also think that kids will not see the story flaws and will just enjoy it for the magical adventure it is.
Overall this is a pretty flawed first outing but it does have it’s moments thanks largely to the performances of the adults in the films. It didn’t leave me craving the next part in the series but seeing as I’ll be watching that tomorrow night I suppose that doesn’t matter to me. In the end though it just feels very average. I almost feel like I watch nothing for 2 and a half hours. the film is way too long for the wafer thin story it is telling and with a bit of trimming to keep the pacing up and a smarter script this could have overcome the dodgy CGI and terrible child actors. Right, now bring on the Chamber Of Secrets.