Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001, Movie Review)

     I can hardly believe that the Harry Potter film series is almost 14 years old. I still remember being in 4th grade when the first movie came out, and here I am now, a collage graduate and the series itself has been immortalized as a classic. Even if you’re not a fan of the series, you still can’t dismiss it for leaving a huge impact on the early 2000’s. It was more of a cultural phenomenon then anything at the time, and it still hasn’t been surpassed. Sure, big franchises come and go, but Harry Potter remains timeless and still a favorite of mine to this day. Now that it’s been over two years sense the series concluded in 2011, I feel it’s time to give tribute where it’s long overdue, and give individual reviews of each installment in the series. Before I begin, I want it made clear that I’m judging these movies as movies on their own, not in comparison to the book. Trust me, the books are just as great too, but there completely different and should be looked at differently. I’m not going to criticize any of these movies for not following the books verbatim. With that said, let’s look at the 2001 motion picture that started everything, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”, or “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” as it’s sometimes called.

     This film is often regarded as “The Wizard of Oz” of its time, and for good reason. Over the years, it’s earned the right to be labeled as a classic, and while it’s definitely a movie geared more toured kids, it still has enough spark and imagination to appeal to a wider audience. I’ll admit, when this movie first premiered, I didn’t know a thing about this character, I hadn’t read any of the books and I had no idea what the premise was about. The second the movie ended, I was hooked, I had to read every book in this series, I had to see every movie that would follow after, I had to be a part of this big crowd of devoted fans, and if a movie can successfully get kids interested in reading, then you know it’s doing something right.

     It almost seems pointless to discuss the premise because so many people know it, but for any new comers, here’s a short summary of this film adapted from the classic novels written by J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter is an orphaned boy, forced to live with his dead beat relatives. He seems like your normal, everyday child, but through a series of unexplainable events, it seems there’s something strange and rather magical about him that even he can’t figure out. Then on his eleventh birthday, it comes to his knowledge that he belongs to a world of wizards and magic that his parents descended from. As it’s the proper rite of passage for children in this magical world to receive a proper wizard-ing education, Harry finds himself sent to a castle called Hogwarts, which is actually a school for young witch’s and wizards. Over the cores of a year, our young hero makes close friends, takes some really interesting classes and participates in the greatest sporting event in the history of fictional sporting events. Along the way, Harry and friends find themselves caught up in a plot which involves a magical item hidden in the castle and an evil wizard that aims to claim it for himself.

     This may seem like a really silly concept to anyone not familiar with these films or the books, but it’s all done so well. For the first hour, there really isn’t much of a plot and it’s all just the experience of getting to know these wonderful characters and being submersed in this magical world. Everything is colorful, lively, imaginative and it’s such a simple treat to see this common every day child grow a foundation in this magical setting. As a result, this wizard world does begin to feel more like a home rather than just another magical kingdom that the audience has been swep away to. I especially love that none of the films impressive visual effects or captivating set pieces distract the audience from our lead characters or the simplicity of the experience. There’s almost no attempt from these filmmakers to make this movie an extremely big, out of the box picture. The plot never gets to complicated, there’s no modern talk, no pop culture references, everything just feels genuine and pleasant. It’s one of those movies that’s worth watching just to experience favorite scenes along with characters that are really easy to love. Thankfully, the movie has just enough substance in both the plot and in its wholesome message to make this more than just an entertaining film to pass the time. One of my favorite moments is when our hero’s first arrive at Hogwarts school, seeing this castle for the first time, along with that terrific musical score is something that I’ll always remember. On that note, the music composed by John Williams is also very memorable. It’s the kind of original musical score that can only be attribute to this series, much like how the music from “Indiana Jones” or “Star Wars” can only be attributed to their franchises.     

     I could honestly spend this entire review just listing off favorite scenes, which I’m not going to do, but I will say that the big highlight of any Harry Potter movie are the Quitich matches. This has to be one of the most original concepts for a fantasy movie to feature a sport like this. It’s almost like a hockey or soccer game, just with brooms and magical items thrown in. It’s fast, it’s exciting and they always manage throw something into each game to advance the story further, that way there not just time filler. While there aren’t Quitich matches featured in every movie, there still featured in a tone of them, mostly the first three movies. Thankfully, each one does something different, so we never feel like we’re seeing the same game twice.

     For all the movies entertaining qualities, I still think the biggest strength of the film comes from the cast, particularly the three main child actors. They of cores are Daniel Radcliff in the lead role of Harry Potter, Rupert Grint as his best friend Ron Weasley and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger. Not only do these actors look the part, their also full of energy, they express a lot of emotion and their so convincing in their respected roles that I never feel like I’m watching actors speaking memorized lines. It genuinely feels like these characters have come to life in the flesh, and that’s not an easy accomplishment for child actors. The filmmakers were simply lucky enough to capture lighting in a bottle, and to prove a point, Steven Spielberg turned down his involvement in this production just because he couldn’t get Haley Joel Osment in the leading role. Now he was also a very gifted child actor but I don’t think he could have captured the spirit of the character the same way Daniel Radcliff did. I especially love how all three characters balance each other out with distinct personalities and charismatic charms. Harry Potter of cores is the courageous hero you cheer for, Ron’s the comedic relief and Hermione is the brains of the group. This obviously wasn’t the first film to feature a trio of friends like this and it certainly wouldn’t be the last, but for whatever it’s worth, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of fictional friends as likable or as intriguing as these three.        

     The supporting cast is also really good. This series is chalk full of popular English actors and while they don’t get as much attention as the child actors, they still do a really good job in these roles. It’s really hard not to love the late Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore. This is the great elder wizard who runs the show and despite being a powerful sorcerer that leads the school, he also serves as the moral compos. He’s just so humble, wise, mystical and Richard Harris brings him to life beautifully. Robbie Coltrane is also very likable as a half giant named Hagrid, who’s Harry potters confidant and closest friend of all the adults. One of my favorite English actors of all time, John Cleese plays a ghost called Nearly Headless Nick, who has a small part but his presence is felt. Famous midget actor Warwick Davis plays a number of trolls and dwarfs in the picture, while not some of his absolute best work, it’s still noteworthy. Even the really small background characters like the wand maker named Mr. Ollivander are memorable, but maybe that’s because he’s played by John Hurt and he’s always fantastic.  

     Alan Rickman plays professor Snape, one of the most interesting characters in the series. He’s a school teacher that’s always shrouded in mystery, and has a dark side that he keeps contained. Rickman is awesome in this role, infusing the character with class and a despicable charm that’s all his own. While he isn’t exactly a villain, he’s still a fun character that always keeps you guising where his loyalties lie. Some of the most memorable characters in the series are actually Harry Potters dead beat relatives, the Dursleys, their the retched family members that you just love to hate. There’s also a bully character named Draco, who becomes Harries rival throughout most of the series. It also becomes a tradition for every installment in this series to feature a new teacher in the class position of “Defense against the Dark Arts”, usually each teacher will have some kind of dark secret or hidden agenda that gets exploited in the end. In this movie, it’s revealed that the dark arts teacher is a faithful servant to the series main antagonist, while it’s not completely unpredictable, it’s still effective enough.

    Our primary villain is a dark wizard called Voldemort, he’s the one who murdered Harry Potters family years ago and is the greatest threat the wizard world has ever known. Through a series of events, Voldemort has lost his body and lives off of his faithful servant like a parasite in order to stay alive. The only thing that can revive him to full power is the Philosopher’s Stone, which is hidden in the castle. This character will be played by a number of actors throughout the series and in this film he’s played by Ian Hart. I know most people prefer Ralph Fiennes because he played the character the most and became an iconic villain in the process but honestly I like Ian Hart’s version in this film better. This is the portrayal of the character that terrified me the most as a child, it’s his face and slithery voice that I always associated with the character whenever I read the books.  

        The finally for this movie is a lot of fun, our three hero’s venture into a forbidden part of the castle to safeguard the magical stone that our villain is plotting to gain. This is where the movie really feels like an adventure flick for younger audiences, but it’s still really fun. In this whole climax, Harry and friends encounter all kinds of unique obstacles, including a three headed dog named Fluffy, some killer plants and a giant chess bored with the highest stakes you can possibly have in a game. 

       It’s interesting that many fans of this series are kind of split on which films they like. Some prefer the later day Harry Potter movies because there more adult in tone, certainly not as kid friendly and feature our lead hero’s as young adults as opposed to children. Personally, I prefer the earlier movies in the series, and by that I mean the first three movies. While some of the later day HP films would be really good, I still find myself enjoying these earlier installments the most. These are the classic films I grew up with, these are the ones with the most nostalgia, these are the ones that didn’t take themselves too seriously, the plots never got to complicated and they feel so much more magical to experience. It’s just an instant joy watching these films, in fact there almost like Disney films in a sense, appealing more to kids, but with just enough material to appeal to adults as well. The later films just aren’t as pleasant to watch, they don’t leave me feeling joyful, but they certainly have their own strengths that I’ll talk about down the road.   

       As for the first movie, I absolutely adore it, even more today than I did as a kid. It’s the kind of timeless children’s adventure that I feel is missing in this day and age. If a darker, more action packed and epic movie is more for you, then you should probably stick with something like “Lord of the Rings”, and I’ll admit, I like those too, but it’s still very nice to have something like this to balance it out. It has great characters, it’s magical, it’s colorful, it’s simplistic, it puts a smile on my face every time I watch it, and it still stands as one of the best films in the series, oh and remember, I said one of the best, there’s still other really good, even better films on the way. 


                                           I give “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”4 stars out of 5.    

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