Harry Potter has eluded me. I've never been one for ogres and fairies and magic and more. It seemed to me that anything involving magic was a cop out, as any problem could be solved by saying "Thank god we have the magical ______!"
That said, I have heard over and over again how wonderful this series is. So I'm watching all the HP movies and critiquing them leading up to the release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1." So let's begin.
Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone.
(Happy Potter 1)
So this is my first Harry Potter movie, and I was mostly delighted. It seemed a little long and the climax was weak. The general “house points” horsepucky was useless, but I was not disgusted. It was whimsical and fun, warm and charming, and the scene with Voldemort at the end was pretty chilling.
Everyone knows the plot by now. Harry Potter is a boy living with his horrible aunt and uncle (why is it always horrible relatives?) who inform him magic doesn't exist. Magic is then promptly revealed to exist as the Potter household is mail bombed by about six dozen owls.
The camera then cuts to a completely different house on an island (why?!), with Harry, his aunt and uncle, and a boy whose name I've forgotten that I'm going to call Augustus. I have no idea how they got there. But it doesn't matter as we're there for about 45 seconds before this big giant looking fellow, Hagrid, shows up and whisks Harry Potter away to the world of magic and wizards and brooms and blah, blah, blah.
Hogwarts is a pretty cool sight to behold, with the ghosts and talking paintings and moving stairs. A note on the paintings: they don't seem to move all the time, which is something that took me out of the film. I fret that as the series continues Hogwarts will lose some of its character and just become a series of stone hallways the character run, sneak, and walk down. The set design is awesome, and the bright orange and yellows are warm and inviting. This is better than the kind of icky dark blue the movies switch to after the third one.
Some of the special effects haven't held up particularly well, however. Now here's the thing, when this movie came out in 2001, the first “Star Wars” prequel had just come out and introduced the world to the completely CGI animated Jar Jar Binks. Despite the character being hated a whole bunch, no one really complained about the fact he wasn't a dude in a suit, and the dominos of digital character animation began to topple. Scenes shot on brooms or involving flying or floating or being trust back are awkward and obviously fake, as if a computer generated fantasy was easier than getting four foot tall stunt doubles. In these scenes we can tell it's literally a person sitting on a mechanical bull being tossed and twisted around, then, when thrown, a computer generated character. It took me out of the film. Especially during Quiddich, where Harry would literally not move until something in the plot forced him too. We'd see people playing, then the camera would cut to poor Harry sitting still on his broom. Yeehaw.
The acting of the principals is a little shaky. I mean, they're kids and considering what they became I suppose you can't complain, but inflection is sadly lacking. Daniel Radcliffe does a really good determined face, though. Watching these movies in such quick succession is going to really blow my mind as puberty hits.
A friend of mine told me as I started this endeavor that if I haven't read the books, I'd be lost in some sense as the movies were supposedly made for people who read the books, and I believe it. Things like Quiddich and the house cup bits seemed tacked on, and some minor moments were played up as big, probably to appease fans of the book.
I'm sure readers would watch this movie giddy with excitement, waiting for every moment. Oh, the hat of choosing scene! I wonder what that will look like! Oh! Live Chess! I wonder what that would look like! But some of it seemed awkward. Why bother telling me about all the houses of Hogwarts if we're only going to see the Slithery one and the Gryffindor.
One thing that irks me about this film, and I get the sense will continue, is the logic that most of the problems in these movies can be solved by telling an adult. I think Professor Snape is casting a spell on me. Tell an adult. I think this place I'm going to is dangerous. Tell an adult. I understand why they don't tell adults, because if they did, the movie franchise would not exist.
Here's my problem with fantasy films, which hasn't happened a ton yet here, but I imagine it will soon. In fantasy, especially with magic fantasy, anything is possible. I know that's good in the world of the imagination, but in story telling, it's a cop out. For example, if a character is stuck in a chamber or about to die or something, it's easy to just sort of have a magical creature summoned, or a spell that can solve problems, and so on.
The best writing is the kind that paints the characters into the corner and forces them to get out on their own. Painting them into a corner then making up a magical spell that doesn't exist is cheap. Not that this happened in this film, but I imagine going forward, it will.
Ultimately “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone” is a solid--if not drawn out and a bit too self involved--chapter in the most ambitious undertaking in cinema history. The stakes are a bit low, none of the characters are particularly interesting yet, and the best part of the movie involves the scene with Voldemort and Harry in the secret cavern or cave or whatever it is, which I hope is a sign of things to come.