Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

16 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When filmmakers adapt novels to films, there is that danger of being too far from the spirit of the source material. And then, there is also the “danger” (I use quotations because I don’t believe in it personally) of being too faithful to the source material. In any case, they try to please the half of the film’s audience who has read the novel the film was based on already. But I don’t know if I can find anyone who wouldn’t like “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” based on the first novel (though in some countries, it’s known as “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”) in a best-selling book series by British author J.K. Rowling. The “Harry Potter” book series gives great depth, emotion, magic, and intensely vivid imagination to readers young and old. This film adaptation of the first book is most likely to be liked by anyone who enjoys great fantasy/adventure films and those who have read the book before seeing the movie in the first place.

In my opinion, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” is a classic—one of the best fantasy films I’ve ever seen, with no doubt in my mind. It is magical and enchanting, but it is also dark, gruesome, and with some creepy atmosphere. This film is rated PG and it, as well as the books, are more targeted at children and young adults than adults (who enjoy the books just as well as they). There are scenes of menace and fright assisted by special effects—there is a three-headed dog, a dark wizard feasting on a dead unicorn, a back story involving the young hero’s parents’ deaths, and a pit of tendrils called the Devil’s Snare. They are scary, but not too scary. Besides, if some of the special effects creatures don’t frighten the younger kids, they will instead delight them because they’re having fun. And there is more fun to be had with the whole idea of terrific, colorful characters in a world of supernatural adventure and terror.

Daniel Radcliffe plays the titular, bespectacled 11-year-old Harry Potter and I highly doubt anyone would dislike his casting—he looks exactly right for the part, but most importantly, he feels right. He’s a likable hero—brave, honest, and true. Left on the doorstep of his hateful aunt and uncle as a baby, he has been raised as more of a charity. His young life seems empty until he receives many strange letters and a visit from a gentle giant named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). Harry has been accepted to a boarding school for young wizards and witches who learn to develop their magical powers.

And what a place it is—Hogwarts, as the school is called, was created with a set and by computers. With the right sort of technology, anything can seem real. Hogwarts is no exception. It looks as real as anything. Harry is bewildered by this school, and we are too. The staircases move, the paintings come alive as people pass by, there are friendly ghosts lounging about in the common room, ceilings that change whatever the mood, and then there are the classes in which the kids learn to use their magic using wands. They make things float, they learn to fly on broomsticks, and more.

Harry makes two friends at his new home—enthusiastic Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and bookish Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). He meets many colorful, eccentric teachers—one is the mysterious, glaring potions teacher Snape (Alan Rickman, excellent casting), another is Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) who can shape-shift into a cat, and then there’s the bearded headmaster Dumbledore (Richard Harris).

But there is a story to be told here—Harry, Ron, and Hermione stumble upon a secret within the school. While getting through their classes, as well as a rough game of Quidditch (more on that in a bit), they move into further adventure and danger in the meantime. They encounter a three-headed dog named Fluffy who seems to be guarding something under a trapdoor. They battle a giant troll that seems to be have been brought in by a teacher, whom they suspect is attempting to steal what is hidden in that trapdoor. They fall into that pit of tendrils called the Devil’s Snare. They play a life-size game of Wizard Chess, in which gigantic chess pieces come alive and shatter their opponents. And so on. Computers make these sequences look plausible, and they do a great job, as well as the actors who make us root for them during each of these sequences. These scenes have atmosphere, gravity, and (dare I say) credibility.

Fans of the book who saw the movie were most likely thrilled by the exciting game of Quidditch, a sporting event played midway through the film in which two teams (each member on a broomstick) chase after multiple balls to get through their opponents’ hoops. Harry is good with a broomstick for a wizard his age, so he is made the seeker, which means he has to catch a small, fast, golden ball with wings—this is called the Golden Snitch. This game would be near impossible to film, but even then, the filmmakers take their chances and create an excellent sequence in which everyone is flying, struggling, and going for the win. It looks more or less like I imagined it, anyway.

The director Chris Columbus (best known for his directorial work in “Home Alone” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” as well as writing the menacing and also PG-rated “Gremlins” and “The Goonies”) has directed a classic in the fantasy genre. The actors—the three young unknowns and the high-profile adult British actors—are first-rate in their performances, hitting just the right notes for this movie. The action is exciting, the set pieces are outstanding, there are many scenes that bring true magic to viewers, and the very best thing about the whole movie is that it doesn’t just set up for the sequel—it could work as a stand-alone film. But we all know that the sequels are worth seeing and that this series of books is a possible successful fantasy/adventure film franchise.

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’s” running time is 152 minutes—there was not a single moment when I was checking for the time. I was entertained, moved, or enchanted by just about every scene in this film.

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