Given that this year marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the first Harry Potter novel (well… it had already been published in the UK in 1997, but the US version didn’t come out until 1998), it seems fitting to go back and watch the films that were such an integral part of my childhood. So how well does the movie that first introduced me to the Boy Who Lived hold up? Looking at it through the eyes of an adult, some things do not hold up quite as well as others.
I’m sure the basics of the story are known to most: Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is orphaned as a baby and raised by the insufferable Dursley family, only to be told at the age of eleven that he is, in fact, the son of a witch and a wizard. Thus, he is also a wizard and invited to be a student at the prestigious Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There, not only does he meet his future fast friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), but he also discovers that his parents were killed by the evilest wizard in all magical history, Lord Voldemort, and that there may be someone at the school who wants to kill him, too.
I can’t help but feel that Harry is more of a reactive character than a proactive one here. I feel for him when he first meets the other wizards and they all praise him and are in awe him as the Boy Who Lived, and yet he doesn’t understand why. After all, as far as he knows, it was luck that saved him from Voldemort’s wrath. It was luck that brings him to Hogwarts, through no merit of his own. When Harry wins his first Quidditch game by catching the Snitch, how does he do it? Through luck. Even when he confronts the duplicitous Professor Quirrell, it is through sheer luck that he defeats him, without even really intending to. In other words, it never feels that Harry actually does anything. Things happen to him and Harry reacts, but as a character, he remains rather static.
This makes Harry himself kind of the most uninteresting character in his own origin story, with Radcliffe adequately laughing and/or staring incredulously at things but never being given much of a chance to shine. Watson’s vivacious Hermione and Grint’s whiny but affable Ron often steal the spotlight and as characters, fare much better. I love that Hermione’s know-it-all attitude and Ron’s stalwart loyalty come in to play during the final “battles”. It is clear from the outset that the threesome’s friendship is at the heart and soul of the series and the emotional climax of the film is the spectacularly staged Wizard’s Chess game, in which Ron’s brave sacrifice makes Harry’s subsequent face-off with Quirrell feel anticlimactic in comparison. Indeed, this film raises the standard for the themes of courage, loyalty, friendship, and love that dominate the series, even while I also have misgivings about the children’s almost immediate lack of respect for authority or their knack for breaking the rules (and getting away with it, usually).
The Harry Potter series have become famous as a veritable who’s who of notable British thespians and the first film sets the stage in grand fashion, with Alan Rickman’s oily Professor Snape and Richard Harris’ quietly authoritative Professor Dumbledore as the standouts. Curiously, I find the special effects to be rather hit or miss here. The Quidditch match is fantastic and is a highlight of the film, but the troll and Scruffy the three-headed dog look unconvincing, especially in a film from the same year when the Balrog and the cave troll wowed audiences in The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring.
All in all, the first Harry Potter is a mixed bag. It is a little long and adheres almost painfully to the original source material. Certain plot points don’t hold together, such as the titular MacGuffin…I mean, the Philosopher’s Stone… I mean, the Sorcerer’s Stone, in that a great deal is made about it, but in the end, it doesn’t really amount to anything other than a plot device.
I do appreciate the fact that the film allows most of the magic to be just that…magic. Most things, such as the Mirror of Erised or the Cloak of Invisibility or ninety percent of the things you see in Diagon Alley, are never explained how or why they work and I am okay with that. I like that most of the magical elements are taken at face value and are simply a part of the mystery of the wizarding world. However, I am not going to get into the debate as to whether watching movies that promote magic and the use thereof is harmful or beneficial for children. That I leave to others.
I will say that, while this is an entertaining, creative, it is surprisingly dark and frightening at times (the scene with the dead unicorn springs to mind) and thus should probably only be enjoyed by more mature younger viewers. It is not always morally strong either, but at the very least, it provides springboards for discussion and it is most certainly consistently visually impressive, well-acted and imaginative.