Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

This film is the very definition of a straight book-to-screen translation, for better or for worse.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone follows the original children’s novel very closely, perhaps to a fault. The film covers nearly every single aspect of the book, leaving very little out. Unfortunately, this means that the movie is crammed full at two and a half hours, but still feels as though it's rushing in order to cover everything. The dramatic pace of the movie is a bit off because of this, sometimes making the film feel a little bit like a childrens' roller coaster rather than a well-rounded story.

However, the casting here is completely flawless. Good child actors are seemingly non-existent, yet the lead three characters are played perfectly by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint.
The visual effects go back and forth between astounding and disgusting. All of the “solid” objects look amazing. Hogwarts castle looks completely real, as do all of the other environments. The makeup on the goblins is particularly good; they look like evil, pale-faced Yodas. The attention to detail in the film's visuals overall is practically unmatched. When it comes to the CGI, however, it's an entirely different matter. Almost every time a CG monster or human is shown, it looks obviously fake and cartoonish. Because CG creatures are the focus of many important scenes in the film, this can be extremely distracting.
On the other hand, the whimsical and kid-friendly tone of the movie counters this somewhat. After all, when you have eleven-year-old wizards using tiny wands to battle a slimy mountain troll, realism takes a slight dive. It would have been nice to have real-looking CG effects, but the movie isn't ruined because of the bad ones.

The music is almost astoundingly good. John Williams has apparently not yet lost his touch, managing to craft musical themes that reflect the mystery, wonder, and excitement of Harry’s strange magical world.

An odd thing about the film is its constantly contrasting tone and subject matter. While the film has the whimsical quality of a five-year-old’s brain, the events in the story are far more mature. Voldemort is said to have murdered Harry’s parents, and drinks a slain unicorn’s blood on-screen. Later, Harry purposely uses powerful magic to defend himself, burning his attacker down to ashes. As if that wasn’t enough, Ron occasionally throws out a “damn” or “hell.” While it’s nice to see the film not dodge the book’s more mature content, it does make one occasionally wonder who the target audience is.
The most important part of this film, however, is the manner in which it uses the character of Harry to bring us into this new magical world. He, like Luke Skywalker before him, is the young, ordinary hero who is transported from his grounded reality into a fantastical adventure. There's a sense of wish fulfillment in The Sorcerer's Stone: that dream of taking the Hogwarts Express and being swept way to a land of wonder and excitement.

All in all, this film has a slightly jumpy narrative structure and sometimes-shoddy visual effects, but everything else is of the highest quality. The entire experience is slightly shallow, but it works well enough as an audiovisual spectacle that it's absolutely worth watching. While The Sorcerer’s Stone definitely works better as a book, it functions just fine as a film.