Every so often there is a major phenomenon. And for the late 1990’s? That was Harry Potter. In a series of seven books, J.K. Rowling broke records with a tale of a young boy wizard. Kids were showing up to midnight release parties for the latest books and dressing up as the characters for conventions.
A movie was pretty much inevitable. They brought in Chris Columbus, writer of youth favorites like the Goonies and Gremlims and director of Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire. He, screenwriter Steve Kloves, and Rowling worked to craft a film that “captured the magic” of the books.
Young Harry Potter has grown up with his aunt, uncle, and cousin unaware of a big secret about himself. The Dursleys shower love on their son Dudley, all the while with holding any decent treatment of Harry. They keep him in a compartment under the stairs, rather than a proper bedroom. On his eleventh Birthday he is greeted by Hagrid, a giant of a man and a representative of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. You see, Harry’s parents were wizards, and he has the gene.
Harry discovers that, in fact, he is a famous wizard. When he was a baby, an evil wizard, so evil in fact he is only referred to As He Who Walks Behind the Rows-wait, He Who Must Not Be Named– was trying to take over the wizarding world and enslave the non-magical world. There was a prophesy about young Harry, and He Who Must Not Be Named (Actual Name; Voldemort) was determined to prevent it from coming to pass by killing Harry and his parents. While he was successful in killing Harry’s parents, when he attempted to kill Harry, the spell rebounded and killed Voldemort and leaving Harry with a lightning bolt scar.
Harry is brought to Hogwarts, where he makes friends with Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger and also makes some enemies, primarily in fellow student Draco Malfoy. Malfoy’s family were actually Death Eaters (members of Voldemort’s cult). They are strict and cruel aristocratic types. Ron comes from a large wizarding family and Hermione is actually of non-magical lineage (some cruelly call her a Mudblood).
The Sorcerer’s Stone follows Harry’s first year as he solves a mystery in which there seems to be a unique magical object that the headmaster is hiding. Between Harry, Hermione and Ron’s quest, we see Harry learning about the differences (both good and bad) to be found in the world of witches and wizards. He gets guidance from the kind hearted Headmaster Dumbledore and faces adverse treatment from Professor Snape.
The cast in the film is what really stands out in the film. While the kids are not heavily impressive (which is understandable, most of them are in their first or second role), every adult role seems carefully chosen. Richard Harris is terrific as the soft spoken Dumbledore. Maggie Smith is excellent as good but stern Professor McGonagall. The late Alan Rickman is terrific in the role of the grim and tough Professor Snape, the potions professor who aspires to teach the Defense Against the Dark Arts Class. But even small roles, such as the ghost Nearly Headless Nick are given to established talent like John Cleese.
The visual effects are all over the place. There is a sequence in which Harry is on the shoulders of a troll, and it is an embarrassingly low budget looking like video game scene. This might not seem fair, but this came out the same year as the Fellowship of the Ring, and it is hard to ignore that the Sorcerer’s Stone can fall so short. Most of the effects are certainly good, but these big moments falling short of the weakest effects in the Lord of the Rings hurts the film.
The movie makes a tremendous effort to bring the books to vibrant life onscreen. And in a general sense, it does pull that off. The movie really does bring the world of witches and wizards to life. The use of spells, the moving pictures, the castle ghosts. In fact, it sometimes feels like they were so dedicated to filling in as much information from the book that they forgot the story is more important. Certainly, the plot is there from the book. But the attention to detail actually can get distracting.
Fans of the book are ultimately going to be satisfied. It is a fun movie for those of us that enjoyed the books. But it never really comes to a point where it can stand on it’s own without the books.