Friday, April 2, 2010

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

This could have been an awful movie, you know.  It requires several child actors to carry the dramatic load at an age when only prodigies are good actors.  Not everyone is a Culkin, you know.  It's based on a successful book series, but it deals heavily in imagination; the proverbial magic could have been lost in translation (see: Dungeons and Dragons).  The adult actors could have been miscast, or even incompetent.  Not all adults share the screen well with children, like Michael Madsen in the Free Willy movies.  The studio could scrimp on the budget and get laughable special effects, ruining an otherwise plausible film idea.  X-Men Origins: Wolverine springs to mind as an example, although the effects weren't the only problems there. 

This film manages to sidestep these issues and successfully launch the most successful film franchise ever.  This is even more impressive when you consider a) there are more Star Wars movies than Harry Potters (so far) and b) the cast has remained almost unchanged throughout.

Do we really need to recap the origin story for Harry Potter?  In England, apparently there are a lot of wizards and witches, living fairly normal lives (if more magical than ours), working and going to school and the like.  Now, if that seems unlikely to you, consider this: there must be a reason people live on an island that isn't tropical, right?  Alright, then.  Just as there are normal, pleasant wizards, there are criminal wizards.  The biggest baddie of the all (think Adolf Stalin with a Merlin cap) was Lord Voldemort.  In his ongoing attempt to subdue all opposition to his terror, Voldemort attacked and killed the parents of the infant Harry Potter.  However, when Voldemort tried to kill the baby --- what's the emoticon for magical post-birth baby murder?  Oh, yeah... : ( --- something strange happened; Voldemort was mortally wounded and Harry survived with only a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead to show for it.  Harry was raised by non-magical relatives until his eleventh birthday, when the world of magic was revealed to him for the first time and he enrolled in Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

This, the first in the Harry Potter series, focuses on (appropriately enough) his first year at Hogwart's wizarding school.  Since it takes place over a whole school year, there is a main plot and then a lot of time spent with Harry encountering magical stuff for the first time.  The main plot deals with Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermoine, trying to figure out what mysterious item is being protected within Hogwarts and who is after it.  Well, it turns out that the item is the Philosopher's Stone, which can create an elixir that prolongs life.  Who would want a thing like that?  If you guessed Mr. Frowny Emoticon Face, you'd be right.  Once they figure that out, Harry and his friends try to prevent Voldemort from taking the Philosopher's Stone.

A lot of this movie is spent showing the viewer how different and wondrous the wizarding world is.  There are hundreds of minor examples of magical use throughout, from paintings with animate subjects to broom riding.  Overall, they did a good job.  The special effects take charge here and, while they pale in comparison to the effects in later sequels, they generally look pretty nice.  There are a few poorly designed moments here and there, but nothing major.  Sure, the Quidditch field looks like it is at least sixty miles away from the nearest building, but nitpicking the realism of a movie starring wizards is silly.

The casting in this film is fantastic.  The supporting cast of Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, John Hurt, John Cleese, Alan Rickman, and David Bradley could not be much better.  The actors suit the characters from the book and, while this isn't Superman-level supporting star power, it's pretty close.  The established actors all perform well and the children...well, they're kids.  Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint (Harry and Ron Weasley, respectively) did a good job of looking surprised, I guess.  They're kids and they weren't Jake Lloyd-terrible, so there's no harm done.  However, Emma Watson, as Hermione Granger, actually had flashes of good acting sprinkled throughout her performance.  Regardless, all three are visual matches to the book's characters, and that's usually good enough to recommend a child actor.

While the casting was fantastic, the writing and directing was only okay.  Yes, they stuck to the book's script almost verbatim, but that's a problem in and of itself.  Instead of taking liberties with some of the small details and focusing on more interesting visual magics, the movie misses some potentially awesome moments.  As far as the acting goes, Chris Columbus did a good job with the supporting cast and a very respectable one with the main kids.  He skimped a little when it came to the minor child characters.  I find it odd that commonplace things like magically appearing food, or paintings with animated subjects would hold much fascination for students that grew up around magic.  They should not have gasped, ooh-ed or ahh-ed.  Admittedly, those are minor complaints for minor problems in an otherwise fun family movie.

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