And so we’re just a few short days away from the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth installment in the popular wizardry franchise from the novels by J.K. Rowling. For the past eight years, several different filmmakers have been turning each of the very entertaining and well-orchestrated books into equally entertaining and well-orchestrated movies. The series got out to a bit of a mildly rocky start (which I’ll be taking a look at today) but has developed into many thoroughly satisfying films.
Over the course of the next five days, I’ll be examining each one of these movies–recapping, reviewing, and reminiscing–as we lead up to the release of the new film next Wednesday, July 15. Today, however, we’ll start back at square one with 2001’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as directed by the incomparable Chris Columbus (sadly not the famous explorer).
I want to keep this brief, but just in case you’re a Potter virgin, I think it’s necessary to provide you with the sufficient backstory and set-up that this film/book provides. In doing that, this synopsis will wind up a lot longer than any of the ones you’ll see in coming days. Spoilers ahead, and feel free to skip to the next section if you’re a Potter fanatic.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is about a young boy by the name of…(drumroll)…Harry Potter. An orphan raised by the Dursleys—his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon and their spoiled little brat of a son, Dudley—Harry grows up around a family who treats him like the ultimate shame and burden. When he turns eleven years old, he discovers that he is actually a wizard and that his parents were murdered by a malicious wizard named Voldemort, who many simply refer to as “He Who Must Not Be Named.” Harry is a celebrity among the wizarding community, known as “The Boy Who Lived” because Voldemort, who has since vanished, was unable to kill him with the avada cadavra death curse that seemed to work so well on his parents.
With a little help, Harry is soon indoctrinated into the vast and fascinating world of witches and wizards—the one that’s right in front of all of us muggles (“non-magic folk”) but we just can’t see it…you know, because we’re dense (which is all I need to convince me this is fact rather than mere fiction). He is whisked away by a big cuddly teddy bear of a half-giant named Hagrid to complete his first year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he makes fast friends with a red-headed little oddball named Ron Weasely and the prissy-but-well-meaning Hermione Granger. He also makes enemies with a little snobby punk by the name of Draco Malfoy. Lucky for Harry, Ron, and Hermione, they are all placed in the Gryffindor house during their sorting ceremony. Malfoy heads over to the Slytherins. The school’s headmaster is a highly revered and benevolent wizard named Albus Dumbledore, who knows to keep a close eye on that Boy Who Lived, who’s rising fast in popularity, having joined the school’s Quidditch team.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione soon stumble upon a plot to steal the coveted Sorcerer’s Stone, which is being kept hidden away in the dungeons underneath Hogwarts. The stone can be used to provide immortality to its owner. The kiddos immediately suspect Professor Snape, the suspiciously cold-hearted potions teacher and head of the equally distasteful Slytherin house. But as their journeys and adventures further prove, it’s not Snape with the evil plan, but actually “p-p-p-poor stuttering Professor Quirrell.” They thwart his plan to use the Stone to help resurrect Voldemort, finish out their first year, and live happily ever after…until next year…
The Meat and Potatoes:
Sorcerer’s Stone is by no stretch a bad movie, but it’s not exactly top-drawer Potter, either. Chris Columbus isn’t much of a director and the film kinda suffers from it (imagine that!). The movie is far too long for the story that it’s telling (at over two-and-a-half hours, it’s one of the longest of the franchise, taken from the shortest of the books), and if I remember correctly, there is only one scene in the entire book that didn’t make it into the movie. It’s less a translation to film and more of a whimsical dictation, condescending to the material like a parent reading their three-year-old to sleep—a pretty high and mighty attitude to have for the guy that made Stepmom, don’t ya think? The series has since passed through several different directors’ hands and Columbus has now moved on to bigger and better things… like I Love You, Beth Cooper.
I first saw it the night it premiered on HBO, about a month before the next film, Chamber of Secrets, was released theatrically. Its light, fluffy, and forgettable tone kept me from taking it as seriously as I now wish I had. I enjoyed it, but didn’t think much else of it. And it all just goes to show what a poor choice Chris Columbus was to direct this film—it’s big on cuteness and low on authentic fantasy and imagination. The franchise has since found several other outstanding directors to take it into the dark terrain where it works best. (I would’ve loved to have seen David Yates’s take on the three-headed dog guarding the Stone!)
Understand, I’m not totally insulting the film. I did say that it isn’t a bad movie, and I stand by that. It’s quite entertaining, and by staying so close to material that was already pretty cinematic, it keeps a solid story going for the duration of the film and sets up everything we need to know in a perfectly competent and fun way. As such, however, it ends up being the one that you’ll be least compelled to revisit since it doesn’t really have much story or style of its own.
Fun fact: In its native England, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone goes by the name of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I guess we Americans don’t take too kindly to them philosophizin’-types. I can just see a family of four wondering what movie they should all go see: “Harry Potter and the WHAT?! Fuck that!”
Why You’ve Gotta See It:
Well, obviously because it supplies all the set-up that you’re going to need for the full enjoyment of all of the remaining films, but more specifically I’m on the hunt for the most enjoyable and magical (pun intended) moment of the film that’s fully worth remembering. Now, the Harry Potter movies have showcased just about every British actor you can think of at some point (and Deathly Hallows has finally scored some Bill Nighy action!!), but here we can see the franchise shoot its John Hurt wad early. The Alien chest-busting victim shows up early on in this film to sell good ol’ HP his very first wand! It’s a terrific little scene made all the better by a thoroughly awesome actor.
Come back tomorrow, when I’ll take a look at Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets!!