Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone (2001) Review
Hello cupcakes, remember me? I know, I know!! It’s been a while. Anyway, now that I’m back I want to talk to you about “Harry Potter”. Twenty years ago today, Bloomsbury published “Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone”, so I thought it would be fun to go back and rewatch that first Potter film once again.
Where to start? Well firstly in the spirit of full disclosure, I love the “Harry Potter” series, so please don’t expect to find me shredding them here – they have their imperfections but 99% of the time they’re great. Secondly, the books and films have been out for a bloody long time now, so there are highly likely to be spoilers in here. If you’ve managed to live under a rock and avoid this story until now!! So consider this a *SPOILER ALERT* and read on at your own risk if you’ve not read/seen all the books/films yet.
By the time this first film was being filmed there were already four books out and the J K Rowling was working on the fifth. As an audience we were in the beneficial position of knowing that although there might be danger present this was a story for kids and, in the blissful carefree days before George R R Martin, we could be fairly confident the main characters were safe…for now, at least.
This first film is (much like the protagonists themselves) a very young story. The goodies smile and the baddies scowl, the heroes follow the rules (or at least break them for the right reasons) and the villains do not. And let’s be honest the story (all volumes) are aimed at kids to young adults so at least to start with the narrative is easy to follow.
We start with a brief prologue of how Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) came to live with his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon and how he discovers from the literally larger-than-life Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) that he’s not just the unfortunate soul he thought he was but, to coin a phrase, “…a wizard ‘Arry”. After finding out he’s quite extraordinary, his first steps into the until now unknown wizarding world comes in the form of Diagon Alley. A secret entrance with a passcode (touching specific bricks in the wall of a dead-end) to enter make it quite the reveal. With cobbled streets, strange people and even stranger shops with odd wears and peculiar fayre. We see with Harry for the first time the olde worlde feel of the wizarding world. Broomsticks, cauldrons, owls, spell books and Harry’s fortune that is found in the vaults of Gringott’s, the wizard bank run by Goblins (of course).
Our heroes meet for the first time on the 25th most famous train in the world (according to an article published by The Telegraph 30 Nov 2015), the Hogwarts Express. Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are on their way with all the other students to their home for the rest of the school year, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
We know the age-old story: good vs evil. It’s something the Wizarding World knows well and “The Philosopher’s Stone” is where it all starts up again in the Harry Potter universe. One of the clever things that Rowling’s tale does, over its seven volumes/ eight movies, is to tell two stories, that of Potter himself and, of course, that of Tom Riddle. Potter’s story takes centre stage in the first movie as our young trio get to grips with daily life at Hogwarts, survive Quidditch, deal with Trolls and tuck into mountainous feasts before finding themselves in a race against time to recover the eponymous stone before He Who Must Not Be Named. Harry’s defeat of Voldemort (metaphysically ‘couch surfing’ on the back of Professor Quirrell’s head) is mostly incidental and certainly nothing he consciously does, but it’s his courage and skills with a broomstick, along with Ron’s strategic chess acumen and Hermione’s knowledge which cements their bonds of friendship and their importance to the story still to come.
The acting from the kids is not great in this film – it’s not terrible – but it is somewhat stiff, but given their age and experience – especially with an effects-heavy production like this, Director Chris Columbus does a great job at coaxing the performances from them. They’re helped by the supporting cast – a veritable Who’s Who of British thespianism – who give the lightweight adventure some much-needed gravitas. Richard Harris’ Dumbledore is a drowsily sage headmaster but in retrospect, it’s difficult to see him doing justice to the dynamic Dumbledore of later movies the way Gambon did (I’m pretty sure Gambon wouldn’t have flubbed the ‘Alas, earwax!’ line too). Dame Maggie Smith revives her famous role of Miss Jean Brodie, sprinkling in enough magic and enchantment to breathe life into Professor McGonagall as enchants as a firm but caring grandmother figure that Harry needs. Alan Rickman’s Professor Snape was “Always” perfect (see what I did there?), walking the line between ‘loyal’ double agent and ambiguously spiteful bully with ease, although in this first film he’s wicked and cruel and we’re meant to hate him.
“Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone” is a fun and relatively innocent romp through Harry’s first school year at Hogwarts and a terrific introduction to the wizarding world. Colombus’ direction is candy-coloured and bright and the chief achievement of the movie is managing to cram just enough of the details from the source novel onto the screen that you feel not like you’ve watched a movie but instead have read the novel again really quickly. It’s a testament to Rowling’s descriptive prose and Kloves’ well-crafted screenplay that the vast majority of what appears on-screen is exactly what appeared in millions of readers’ minds as they devoured page after page. It’s rewarding to rewatch as well despite its Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum aesthetic thanks to the Easter Eggs and long-term Chekov’s Guns Rowling plants, not least of all the unheralded introduction of one of the pivotal Deathly Hallows. Of course, no look back – however brief – on the start of the Harry Potter film series would be complete without acknowledging the importance of the contribution of one of cinema’s true geniuses: John Williams. His themes and motifs quickly and indelibly establish both the mystery and magic of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the same iconic way he did for “Star Wars”, “Indiana Jones”, “Superman”, “Jaws”….well, the list goes on and on.
Of all the films in the series, this is the shortest and most child-friendly; the story getting darker with each film as the story unfolds. It’s not my favourite, but all stories have to start somewhere.
I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on “Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets”…
[narrator: She wasn’t]