November marked the 17th anniversary of the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone as the cool kids call it). This revelation made the entire world scream in agony as they realized that time waits for no man and that we are all rapidly racing towards the same, grim finale. But all is not bleak in the muggle world, especially not for die-hard Potterphiles, for there is a new Harry Potter film on the horizon!
Revisiting The Harry Potter Film Franchise
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald came out around the same time. And to be fair, no, this one does not include the boy wizard or his ginger/bookworm pals, but it does take place in the Harry Potter universe. And for those craving another sweet, sweet, magical hit, that can be enough. Besides, unlike the two-part play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, this new film is actually written by JK Rowling herself!
It is safe to say that we are in completely uncharted territory with this new franchise. The TITLES of this new series can’t even seem to agree if there is a colon in them or not. Seriously, why wasn’t the first film called Fantastic Beasts: Where to Find Them? You can’t just start adding colons wherever you want, Joe! This is what happens when you turn a spinoff into its own series. You truncate your titles. Colons apparate out of thin air. Suddenly things are ‘A Star Wars Story’. It’s mass hysteria!
If you’re like me, you’re never too far away from the wonderful wizarding world that Rowling created. You’ve read the books numerous times. You probably went to Universal Studios and got yourself a wand. You argue that Prisoner of Azkaban is Alfonso Cuaron’s best film (more on that later). You may not spend your days wishing you went to Hogwarts but you definitely wish you had an owl or maybe just a broomstick. And you definitely, definitely rewatch the films, sometimes in marathon format.
Which is precisely what I did in preparation for this new excursion back in November. But how do the films hold up? How did they evolve over time? And what can we expect from this newest installment?
Let’s dive right in, shall we, with the first film in the franchise…
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Cast your minds back to 2001. The Harry Potter series, while only four books in, was a global phenomenon. I remember my teachers taking time out in class to read the first book to us. How many modern books are deemed so important in the here and now that teachers think they are more important than math?
The announcement of a film was simultaneously mind-blowing and expected. Of course, they were going to make a movie! But who would write it? Who would direct it? And who for the love of God would star in it?
The answer to the first question turned out to be relatively obscure American screenwriter, Steve Kloves, who must be great in a room since he wrote all but one of the original eight films. It can’t be stressed what a great job he did condensing the increasingly massive tomes into manageable films (but again more on that later).
For the director of this massive franchise, several gargantuan names were thrown about. Steven Spielberg turned down the project saying that it was “like shooting ducks in a barrel” and JK Rowling herself lobbied for Terry Gilliam, but in the end, the job went to a safe bet in the form of Christopher Columbus.
And as for who would star? Well, that turned out to be every British actor who ever lived. But in the role of the three main characters, we got three newcomers; Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley, Emma Watson as Hermione Granger, and Daniel Radcliffe as the boy who lived himself, Harry Potter.
And How is the Film?
It’s fine. Look, it was wonderful to see this movie at the age of eleven. Harry, Ron, and Hermione all play their parts well, even if they would go on to give stronger performances later on. And all the teachers, including and especially Robbie Coltrane as the lovable half-giant, Hagrid and the late Alan Rickman as the droning, vile potions master, Snape elevate every scene they are given. I remember thinking there will never be a better Uncle Dursley and Aunt Petunia and the image of the children on enchanted rowboats pulling up to the castle was instantly iconic, but as a grown-up, rewatching these movies, it is hard to ignore how staged and stale the film feels.
Columbus was a natural choice to direct since he had cut his teeth on the massively successful Home Alone, but here he is hamstrung by a cast of children and a massive story to tell. He has to create a world and tone. His choices, like what the school uniforms and Hogwarts itself were to look like, had to resonate in the hearts and minds of audience members for six more films. This is no simple task. In fact, it was a miracle he handled it as well as he did!
But, the whole undertaking just feels very mechanical. The Quidditch scene is enjoyable and fun, but it never feels real. It doesn’t help that the movie’s pacing comes to a halt so that we can watch a sport that audiences have spent years dreaming up on their own. Harry becomes a literal spectator for most of the game, grimacing at Gryffindor’s losses and clapping at their successes. But, it is not until he spots the snitch that he’s even an active participant in the game, and the bit where he stands ON the broomstick to catch the snitch wreaks of Hollywood demanding an “iconic” moment.
A Little Charm Goes a Long Way
Despite the movie coming across as a one-to-one adaptation of the book, Columbus still manages to inject charm into the film. Norbert the Dragon may not be necessary to the plot, but watching him set Hagrid’s beard alight brings squeals of joy from any child, and every kid I knew wanted a real Wizard’s Chess Set. The magic of Harry Potter was never really about the threat of dark magic returning to Hogwarts. It was about a boy solving a little mystery while learning to perform magic! And this film captures that sensation well. It just so happens that other films would go on to capture that sensation with greater success.
While the production and set design in HPatSS is certainly very good, (chocolate frogs looked exactly like how I imagined them and the Nimbus 2000 looks even cooler than I had dreamed), the world does not feel lived in. It feels built. The students all look the same and seem to walk in single file. And it is painfully obvious when they are in a real castle and when they are on a set.
Music from a Master
John Williams may be the greatest composer who ever lived. He’s certainly a legend in cinema who has shaped the way you think about music in movies. If I could let deaf people hear one thing, the music of John Williams would be right up there, along with laughter.
The Harry Potter theme that he composed for this picture is outstanding and ranks among his career highlights, and this is the man who gave us the music for Jaws, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones. The minute you hear those first eight notes, you know you’re in the world of Harry Potter. It really is remarkable, but like everything else in this cast, he would go on to do better work.
The world of Harry Potter is one of flying brooms and magic spells. One where cats transform into legends of the British stage and trolls attack unwitting children in bathrooms. In short, this is a special effects picture, and unfortunately, that is the area in which this film falls short the most. The effects in this movie have not aged well, due to a lack of time. It is all the more shocking when you remember that this movie came out the same year as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, a film which holds together beautifully.
Last Word On Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
By the end of its theatrical run, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone pulled in almost a billion dollars worldwide. Audiences were clearly eager to see more from the boy wizard. And only a year later, we got its sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Best scene: Harry getting his wand from Ollivander’s. Whimsy and danger abound. Perfect for a children’s fantasy.
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