Posted on Tuesday, July 14th, 2009 by David Chen
While discussing which movie to review for next week’s /Filmcast, my co-hosts instantly gravitated towards David Yates’ newest take on the Harry Potter universe, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Having seen the wonderful and thrilling trailer for this film (in IMAX no less), I wasn’t opposed to this, but I was forced to make an uncomfortable confession: I had never watched a Harry Potter film or read a Harry Potter book in my life. The reasons for such a travesty are numerous and varied, but as Sam Seaborn once said, let’s not focus on the fact that I’m late to the party; let’s just be glad I arrived at all.
I contemplated watching the film without watching any of the previous films but was told by many, many, many people that this would be a terrible idea. Not only would the new film not make any sense, but I would be robbing myself of experiencing the entire Harry Potter storyline. So, I decided to undertake the task of watching all five films and writing some brief reflections about each one, culminating in a viewing and a review of the sixth film later this week. My hope is that this will spark some conversation about the previous films, and help us appreciate the benefits and shortcomings of each one’s contributions to this epic series.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Tonight, I began with the first film of the series. It’s been eight years since Chris Columbus first took us into the magical world of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. While Columbus’ directorial commercial success is unquestionable, his ability to create a vast world of the scope required for the Potter films seemed dubious at best. I’d heard from many of my friends that Columbus’ films were the worst of the bunch, so it was with great apprehension that I approached the 152-minute long Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised when about an hour and a half into the film, I realized there was actually a great deal to like about this first film, in which Harry Potter is slowly introduced to the scope of his powers, and his greater significance in the world of wizards. At the outset, I enjoyed seeing the depiction of Potter’s comically hellish upbringing, which, at its best, evoked the works of Roald Dahl. Nonetheless, I’ve heard many people complain about Columbus’ “everything and the kitchen sink” to the first film, and I’m inclined to agree. Even as a newcomer to the series, I was struck with how much the film tried to pack in, with a lot of the detail feeling distinctively like fan service. A good deal of narrative tension seems sacrificed, as the film’s massive mid-section feels almost completely directionless. We follow Potter’s adventures in an episodic fashion, and while it can occasionally be enjoyable to go along for the ride, we never really knowing where the story is going until the film’s last 20 minutes. I can see why fans of the books would eat it all up, but to the casual filmgoer, this movie dragged.
Despite these problems, there are still a few things that stand out to me about the first Potter film which make it worth a look. The first is the world that Columbus has helped to create, along with production designer Stuart Craig and cinematographer John Seale. The vast sets and magical settings are enough to fill anyone with wonder, but the fact that we’re experiencing these things through the eyes of children makes it even more of a joy. I loved the details that felt like they were a product of great care: the initial reveal of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry amidst a river of lantern-lit boats; the first entrance into the Hogwarts cafeteria with the full array of floating candles. A sense of discovery pervades the proceedings, and while I found some of the CGI sorely lacking (essentially anytime you see a CGI human being looks horribly dated), there were plenty of “Wow” moments here, even for an eight-year old film.
Second of all, I was completely taken in by John Williams score. While Williams has crafted some of the most memorable movie themes of the century, in more recent years, he’s turned his focus to more moody, ambient scores. I found the Potter score to be a return to form for Williams, impressive in its range but with plenty of memorable and awe-inspiring themes (As I listened, I kept thinking that this score was as good as his Indiana Jones score from decades past. It’s that amazing!).
Finally, the casting of this film is absolutely perfect. Not enough can be said about the trio of child actors, with Emma Watson playing the uptight Hermione Granger, Rupert Grint as the rough-and-tumble Ron Weasley, and of course, a very young Daniel Radcliffe as the titular Potter. It’s a lot to ask children to take on the ask of holding together a massively anticipated multi-million dollar blockbuster, but Radcliffe and company pull it off flawlessly, with grace and vitality (and at this point in their lives, they are just so goddamned adorable, aren’t they?). Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, and Robbie Coltrane also craft memorable characters, and make themselves teachers and mentors worthy of anyone’s respect and reverence. But my favorite performance is probably the absurdly creepy Alan Rickman, who plays Severus Snape. For pure entertainment value, Rickman is delightful in chewing up each scene he’s in.
Overall, watching the first Potter film wasn’t an unpleasant experience, but its biggest effect on me was to raise my anticipation for the future films, where I hope the storytelling will be further improved and the process of adapting the books to film becomes even more refined.
Discuss: What did you think of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?