We all like to go back and rewatch old favorites. For most of us, watching a well-executed series flourish and grow is also an enjoyable experience. Combining the two practices, therefore, must also be something many of us enjoy doing, but, I would suggest that much may be lost in translation. Following a story from its beginning to its end, watching a series of events play out over a matter of years, necessarily alters our perception of the story as a whole, and in so doing, weakens our ability to go back and start all over again. I found this to be the case in going back to the very beginning and re-watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Beyond any annoying emotional feelings (“Look how tiny and wee and cute the trio is!”), I found it difficult to judge HP1 based on its own merit. It begs to be looked at from the perspective of its position within the larger narrative, so in some ways, that’s how I’ve been forced to treat it. Put another way: I tried really hard to pretend like I was seeing it for the first time, but I’m probably not going to fool anyone. SO, let’s just move on, shall we?
2001 saw the release of the film adaptation of the first book of J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful series about a boy wizard and his evil nemesis. Unknown kids, roughly the same age as Harry and his friends, were cast in the starring roles, and to support them, a veritable parade of the very finest England had to offer stepped into the shoes of the Hogwarts faculty and other adults. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone would serve as our introduction to Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), and in turn, as Harry’s introduction into a world he had no knowledge of, but was destined to be part of. Harry, you see, is a wizard, although he doesn’t know it. He’s been living uncomfortably under the roof of some awful relatives, the Dursleys (Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, and Harry Melling, all perfectly horrid), having been made an orphan at an early age. On his eleventh birthday, he comes to learn the truth about his life. His parents were part of a magical world in which they fought against the evil wizard Voldemort and lost. Harry himself ought to be dead, but something went awry, and in the wizarding world, Harry’s a celebrity: The Boy Who Lived. Suddenly, he finds himself on the way to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he makes a few friends, a few enemies, and ultimately discovers that the fight against Lord Voldemort is far from over.
And we’re off! There was probably never any actual question that this first film, directed by Chris Columbus, would be a smash hit. It certainly was, and the series as a whole made history in a variety of ways. Still, this first venture couldn’t entirely have predicted all that future success, and so it is a reasonably modest affair. It’s very rudimentary in a lot of ways, but for the most part, that is acceptable. It is an introduction, after all. It sets the stage. It gives us Harry’s back-story, such as it is, and it sets up all the necessary components of the saga that is to unfold later. Taken by itself in retrospect, it’s actually quite the tidy little picture. The visual effects are totally worthy of Rowling’s vision, the acting is solid, the story entertaining, and above all, it leaves us wanting more.
There’s so much to see in Harry’s world. Even after all this time, I was struck once again by how Diagon Alley, Hogwarts, the game of Quidditch, and the climactic series of challenges looked as though they’d sprung from the pages of the novel. Likewise, the score and the overall feel of the movie lend us a sense of wide-eyed wonder and joy that all this could really be possible. Alright, so maybe the troll’s a little silly-looking, and some parts of the Quidditch match look a little fake. A certain flatness, likewise, may be attributed to the fact that this was a new venture and a new world into which we were all stepping, or perhaps to the direction. Either way, it is the obvious care and respect of the world being created that makes this film look so wonderful.
That care and professionalism carry over into the performances of the cast as well. Choosing unknown children to helm a franchise is undoubtedly a risky proposition, but I think that the decision to gather together some truly superb adult actors to back the kids up was a brilliant move. With the likes of Richard Harris (Headmaster Dumbledore), Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), and Alan Rickman (Professor Snape) on the roster, you know you’re going to get a good show. The talents of the adults, in my opinion, elevate the abilities of the children. Radcliffe, along with his counterparts Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), while obviously still newbies, hit all their marks here and very seldom lapse into the kind of preciousness that one can sometimes expect from a “kid’s movie.” If their emotional investment lacks depth, well, they’re kids. They’ve got lots of growing to do, as do their characters. Ultimately, I’m just not sure that any known actors would have done a better job, particularly in this early stage where less range was required.
Like everything else here, the story itself is rudimentary. It’s a classic “unknown hero” scenario, with a previously unremarkable character finding himself thrust into a remarkable situation. The fun is in the details (like Quidditch and Wizard’s Chess), and in figuring out which way the battle lines are drawn. There are moments where a certain lack of polish can be seen, most notably in the final scene between Harry and Professor Quirrell (Ian Hart), which feels, at times, as though it were lifted from any Scooby-Doo episode ever written, but overall, the pacing is good and there seems to be an appropriate balance of humor and more serious matters. As has been previously mentioned, with this viewing in particular, I was truly grateful for the dearth of “cute” moments that could so easily have taken over a “kid’s movie about magic.”
That over-simplification is the trap that audiences could have so easily fallen into with this film. Yes, it’s a movie about kids. And magic. But mainly, it’s a movie about good and evil; about heroes and villains. Even in these early days, we can see the bravery, loyalty and courage that are being instilled in Harry and his friends. We are made to understand that Lord Voldemort is a real threat, and that there is darkness in this magical world. These themes belong neither to adults nor children; they are part and parcel of humanity, whether real or imagined, and they are the strengths of the Harry Potter series. The first film of the franchise, even with its designated duty to set things up, still provides us with some big ideas and a taste of things to come. Above all, the purpose of a first installment is to whet its audience’s appetite for what comes next, and in that, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is eminently successful.