Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

I went through a “Harry Potter” phase. I was in the sixth grade and the “Goblet of Fire” hadn’t come out yet. After hearing so much praise for the series, my mom ordered the first three books from the Science Fiction Book Club. I was immediately sucked in, quickly working my way through the novels. The fourth book came out soon afterwards, which I subsequently devoured. The film adaptations fed my frenzy for the wizard world. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” – “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” to you limeys – was an honest-to-God pop culture event when it hit theaters in 2001. In the lengthy wait between the fourth and fifth book, I lost interest in the Potter-verse. Though I read the other books and have watched the other movies, I’ve always felt like I outgrew this particular franchise.

Many other people, it must be said, have not. “Harry Potter” remains beloved by audiences young and old. I’ve met these people and I can’t share their passion. I never wanted to go to Hogwarts. I never wanted to be a Gryffindor or any of that shit. I went through a stage were I wanted to be a wizard but one of the badass ones that fights demons and shoot fireballs, not the type that takes potion classes. Not that anyone should want to go to Hogwarts, considering how dangerous this prestige academy apparently is. My biggest grievance with the world J.K. Rowling created, adored by millions, is how separated the wizarding world is from the non-magical one. Never once has human civilization notice this enormous magical society co-habituating along side it? Not even when a war breaks out in the later entries? For that matter, how possible is it that regular humanity and the magically inclined world have never come into conflict? It all strikes me as deeply unlikely.

Which isn’t to say they’re aren’t aspects I appreciate about the “Potter” films. The production design is aces. Hogwarts is an amazing looking world. The school is an elaborate castle. A sequence devoted to the shifting staircases beyond the dormitories is an imaginative shot. Ghosts, including the nicely morbid touch of John Cleese’s Nearly Headless Nick, roam the hallways. Photos and paintings spring to life. The dining hall has an animated ceiling, showing a night sky. During the holidays, Jack o’Lanterns or Christmas candles float above the tables. John Williams, always reliable to create an immediately recognizable theme, provides a fantastic score.

The set design, costumes, and production design are all top of the line. What of the CGI? Back in 2001, the digital effects were considered cutting edge. Fifteen years later, they look incredibly dated. The film relies far too much on the primitive computer generated images, bringing all its major creatures to life in this manner. This leads to a cartoonish looking blue troll or an unconvincing three-headed dog. Even worst, when the actors have to interact with these entities, they are transformed into equally fake looking CGI models. Attempts to make these rough digital creatures into characters, like a talking centaur, aren’t effective due to the obvious fault of the shaky effects. By trying to prove how high tech it could be, the film ended up exceeding its reach.

Most of the sequences designed to be exciting come off as a bit dry. The three kids attempting to escape the three-headed dog is also undermined by some soft CGI. A later challenge, involving Harry and Hermione wiggling out of strangling vines, generates zero suspense. The Quidditch game, though clearly the centerpiece of the film, has a similar problem. Everything about it is just a bit too light, a little too harmless to produce proper thrills. Other scenes are a little better. The Wizard’s Chess sequence, in which the three wizards have a play on a giant chess board, works a little better. First off, the large stone chess pieces look pretty cool. The scene also relies on practical effects, giving quite a bit more weight to the danger ahead.

In the months leading up to the film’s release, there was a worldwide search to cast the three lead roles. While “Sorcerer’s Stone” would make a few mistakes, its casting wasn’t one of them. Daniel Radcliffe not only looks exactly like Rowling described Harry, he also fits perfectly into the role. He’s curious, slightly reckless, but ultimately heroic. Rupert Grint, though a little rough around the edges, is well suited to Ron, who is still mostly goofy comic relief by this point. Emma Watson, who would arguably have the best career of the three, is brainy without being smug, showing a maturity in the way she instills flaws into the part.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, loaded with some of the best British character actors around. Richard Harris embodies Dumbledore, as an unerringly wise mentor with a hidden sense of humor. Robbie Coltrane is, likewise, perfectly cast as Hagrid, who is as imposing as the character need be without loosing the warmth and goofiness that characterizes him. Maggie Smith as McGonagall is more strict but also shows a quiet sense of humor, albeit one that is more puckish. Of the supporting cast, Alan Rickman is perhaps best cast as Snape. Rickman is extremely good at making sinister acts look extremely fun, which makes him an ideal pick for the part. There’s even a few major names in minor roles, such as John Hurt as the wand shop owner or John Cleese as the ghost Nearly Headless Nick.

There are other story elements in the film that I take umbrage with, quite a few inherited from the source material. Professor Snape is obviously a red herring. The character spend nearly the entire film assuming him to be evil, when it’s quite obvious that he isn’t. Even as a kid, reading the book for the first time, this bothered me. When the true villain is revealed at the end, he immediately explains all the events that happened up to that point, dumping a huge load of exposition on the reader. Harry, despite being the story’s hero, gets a lot of help along the way. He would’ve been dead many times over if not for Hermione’s smarts, Dumbledore’s guidance, and Ron’s previously unstated mastery of chess. It’s only at the very end, when confronted with the antagonist, that Harry actually takes action, the eleven year old boy burning the bad guy to death. Even that is thanks to a bullshit revelation about the power of love.

In more ways then one, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” is a lightweight children’s film. Its mood remains light, even when things get more serious. There’s a lot of holes in the logic and story that young viewers will accept at face value. I guess these things stick in my teeth. But it’s not a bad film. The production design is great, the cast is quite good, and it’s overall an inoffensive way to spend two and a half hours. But the “Harry Potter” franchise would go to more interesting places before it was over. [6/10]

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