Alan RickmanZoe WanamakerJulie WaltersRupert Grint
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Medium: film
Year: 2001
Director: Chris Columbus
Writer: J.K. Rowling, Steve Kloves
Keywords: Oscar-nominated, fantasy
Country: USA, UK
Actor: Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Daniel Radcliffe, Fiona Shaw, Harry Melling, Richard Griffiths, Ian Hart, Warwick Davis, John Hurt, Richard Bremmer, Geraldine Somerville, Julie Walters, Bonnie Wright, Chris Rankin, James Phelps, Oliver Phelps, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Matthew Lewis, Tom Felton, Jamie Waylett, Josh Herdman, Devon Murray, John Cleese, David Bradley, Alan Rickman, Zoe Wanamaker, Adrian Rawlins
Format: 152 minutes
Series: Harry Potter >>
Website category: Fantasy
Review date: 6 October 2014
I loved it. Very underrated. It has a structural oddity in the first half with Harry being a plot passenger, not a protagonist, but in an odd way this works to its advantage.
I'm not going to be comparing these films with the books, by the way. I've read them all and I might find the odd comparison bubbling up, but it long enough ago that I was effectively coming to it fresh and being surprised by things. So, for instance, I was surprised by how much of it feels important. It jumps straight in there with Harry talking to snakes (important for later), the Mirror of Erised, a Voldemort-Harry face-off, etc.
It also has special things about it, unique to this instalment. Harry's parents, for instance. They're important throughout the series, obviously, but here Harry's learning about them for the first time. He's been thrown into this world of wizardry, hidden from him until now by his lying relatives, and for the first time he's learning the gruesome truth about the parents that he can't even remember. They loved him, which is something he's never experienced. (That's even a plot point. Harry's mother's love for him is what gives SPOILER the Curse of the Mummy's Tomb.)
Obviously there's going to be more of this to come, but even so I think there's something special about scenes like, say, Harry sitting on his own, in that lonely, abandoned room, lost in the Mirror of Erised. Radcliffe's still baby-faced. He's so young!
The other thing that's special about this film is the way it discovers its world. In future films, we'll know the ropes. Harry's done it before. There will be surprises, but the wizard world will have become a known quantity. Here, though, I love the way it unfolds for the first time. There's wonder, for instance, in Dumbledore stealing the streetlights in the opening scene. The owls! All those owls! Those are genuinely eerie, albeit in a good way since we know the owls are on Harry's side against the Dursleys. I loved that. The flood of letters. The whole aesthetic of the magical world, with its hodge-podge of medieval, Dickensian and more alongside a completely down-to-earth contemporary London. The magical vault door unlocking. Love it! The architecture of Hogwarts. It's a trip and it fills me with wonder and glee to watch it.
I have an uncle who, for this reason, liked best the first Harry Potter film. (I think this was when only two or three of them had been made, mind you.) Specifically he liked the first half giving Harry almost nothing to do. The boy might as well be a tailor's dummy, being pulled on a string. Dramatically, it's bollocks. (Well, strictly speaking he stands up twice to Draco Malfoy and has a Quidditch match, but the latter hardly counts as it's essentially just an action sequence. Harry's just playing sport. It's fun to watch, but it's not saying much about him as a character. The people getting dramatic business during the Quidditch match are Ron, Hermione and Snape.)
However the effect of this is interesting. It turns the film's first half into a pure exploration of J.K. Rowling's world and at that, I think, it's magical. No, it's not perfect. It's keeping even the tinest plot details and it's over-literal, e.g. the moving staircases. They've cut out whimsy. However it looks fantastic, it's been cast to within an inch of its life and it's nailing the level of danger perfectly even if one does get the impression that the filmmakers are uncomfortable with anything too silly or weird.
Love him or hate him, Chris Columbus brought to life the Harry Potter world... and I think he hit 99% of it out of the park. Spielberg would have moved it to America, for instance.
The weakness is the child actors, of course. The adults are like a Who's Who of much-loved UK actors, but the children are still eleven. They haven't got it together yet. Everyone knows that.
However it's only half true.
Radcliffe is giving an interesting half-performance as Harry. He doesn't have it, of course. He doesn't have the acting chops yet. Give him some heavy lifting and he's not really there, which kills one of his most important character beats when the villain offers to resurrect his parents. I also thought he missed an important trick in not putting more into "I've got presents" on Christmas. That said, though, Radcliffe's far from negligible. There's detail there. He can do micro-reactions. He's also lovely in a couple of quieter moments. "I didn't know" when learning that his father was a Seeker (but a Chaser in the books), or his little nod to McGonagall in thanks for the Nimbus 2000.
Grint and Watson are perfect as Ron and Hermione, though. They embody them to a tee. Grint has a little of Radcliffe's weightlessness when asked to do some heavy lifting, but you'd have to be paying attention to spot it. Watson, though, is amazing in how perfectly pitched she is with her super-annoying swot character who's also the best friend you could hope to have. She nails that blend of likeability and near-unlikeability. Let me put it this way... we're talking about a child actress who gets away with an exclamation of "holy cricket".
Of the others, I found myself oddly underwhelmed by Robbie Coltrane. He embodies the character perfectly and of course the whole world loves Robbie Coltrane, but I don't think he's quite putting enough in. "Never insult Dumbledore in front of me" is weak tea, I think. Sean Biggerstaff, on the other hand, I really liked as the Gryffindor Keeper, Wood. He's a breath of fresh air every time he opens his mouth. There's a lovely naturalness about him. It's a cast to die for, though, of course. Alan Rickman is delicious as Snape. Leslie Phillips as the Hat? Ding dong. David Bradley is a joy, despite his dispensible role. Maggie Smith, obviously.
It's a dream wish list of a cast. You could hardly ask for more. The eleven-year-olds are amazing, all things considered.
I should discuss Columbus. He got the gig because he's good with child actors and, in fairness, he seems to have done his job there. I'll always love him for writing Gremlins, but I've seen some fairly harsh words about him as a director. He's not using the camera to tell the story. The visuals are there to look pretty, not to be part of the storytelling. I don't really have an opinion on this, to be honest. The film works for me, even if that protagonist-free first half does make it a bit odd.
Oh, and the special effects aren't all they could be. There's obvious green screen in what must surely be a pick-up scene (the children and Hagrid at 1h50min), while the CGI on the troll and centaur scrapes in at "good enough". That troll can smash toilets like nobody's business, though.
The only thing I don't like is what feels to me like Americanised "let's all cheer" nonsense. It's only the odd moment and it's nowhere near the series low of the second film's Big Cheer Finale, but I much preferred, for instance, the British understatement of the "all right" Ron-Harry exchange towards the end. That's what it should be.
The film grows a plot in the second half, of course. Suddenly stuff's happening and you find you're watching a narrative instead of pretty pictures. What's more, it's awesome. Our heroes chase the mystery of the Philosopher's Stone. Harry gets cool and meets a Ring Wraith in the forest of Mordor. There's one of my favourite scenes in the entire film series, i.e. the Wizard Chess. It just looks stunning. A few years ago I saw a Harry Potter Chess Set on sale for 350 quid or so in Hamleys and I wanted to buy it.
Random observation 1: this film makes it look as if Quidditch is a game specifically designed to encourage violence. Fouls to knock out opposing players go unpunished from the referee and we see no substitutions being made. It's like Broomstick Death Match.
Random observation 2: Nicolas Flamel is a real historical figure, often mentioned in connection with legends of alchemy and the Philosopher's Stone. They get his age right.
Back in 2001, we tended to be a bit negative about this film. We were comparing it with the book. My brother was disappointed, for instance. This time, though, I wasn't watching it as an adaptation, but just as a film... and it's great. It doesn't really matter how it compares to Rowling. It would be interesting to see another film one day, with a different emphasis, but personally I can't see Pottermania ever reaching the heights it had back then. I think it died a little death once we'd read book seven.
I'm not going to argue with people who dislike the adaptation choices, think it's slavishly faithful to a fault or who regard Columbus as not understanding the visual language of cinema, but I didn't notice and/or care about any of that. I love this film. I think it's really good. Pedantically faithful as an adaptation and being a little nervous, perhaps, but that doesn't mean it's not a glorious film. The book was great and so's the film. Delighted with both. Of course there are things they could have done differently, e.g. making the ghosts spooky instead of having them look like a Disneyland ride, but that's a hiccup in something that basically works for me, big time. Its structure is deeply eccentric, but that just makes it more interesting. Besides, the strength of the story in the second half makes up the lack of one in the first. The film has lovely touches like Neville Longbottom at the end, undercutting what could otherwise have been an overly glib self-congratulatory finale.
It's the first episode in the series, but it doesn't feel as if we're waiting for the good stuff. This is the good stuff.
"I think we've had a bad influence on her."