Retro Reviews are frequent looks back at films I've already seen to conclude whether or not they still hold up, taking into consideration both the time period and circumstances during which they were made and how they work in the modern day to offer a more in-depth exploration of the film itself than those found in my standard first-time reviews.
It's hard to believe, but nearly 15 years have passed since the first Harry Potter film hit theaters in November of 2001. At the time, the anticipation for it was tremendous, with a staggering set of expectations set on its shoulders by fans the world over who'd spent the years since Harry's first adventure was published in 1997 falling in love with J. K. Rowling's incredibly accessible storytelling and endearing characters.
It's a testament to the franchise's popularity that it has continued to endure. A decade after the first film released, fans said goodbye to the series by making the final film - the second half of Deathly Hallows - not just the highest grossing entry in the franchise but the highest grossing movie of the year. The stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - a canon sequel, of course - continues to draw in fans, as does the franchise's theme park presence at Universal Studios. Not to mention, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is on its way to theaters in just a matter of weeks, the inevitable success of which will blow open the doors to further cinematic expansion of the Wizarding World for years and years to come.
All this is to say that Harry Potter and everything that comes with him is important on both a grand cultural scale and on an individual basis, and I'm a part of that. I began reading the series in 1999, the year Prisoner of Azkaban was published, and haven't stopped since; not a year has gone by where I haven't revisited the books, and I'll continue to look forward to whatever's to come, whether it be for the characters who I grew up alongside or for the Wizarding World at large.
In 2001, I - like everyone else - was looking forward to seeing the series brought to life on the big screen, and spent the next decade being both thrilled by and disappointed with the various film adaptations. In honor of the original film's 15th anniversary and our upcoming return to the Wizarding World via Fantastic Beasts, I'll be taking a look back at each film in the series to examine how they've held up, and I invite you to come along with me as I do.
Now, these films are a talking point I've had with many fellow fans over the years, and have heard many, many complaints suggesting that what the films have cut from the books makes the films themselves weaker by default. In some cases, excisions have definitely been baffling - and I'll get to those that particularly bother me in future reviews - but on the whole, I feel the entire franchise has been successful at capturing the spirit of the books. It's hard work condensing any book down into a two-hour film, especially as the books themselves grew longer and longer, and I have to say off the bat that (for the most part) the series did a solid job of that, even if it occasionally stumbled along the way. Unfortunately, that hasn't been enough for some people who demand page-by-page translations, which is too bad, because they're only doing themselves a disservice in hating the films for what they're not instead of being open to the idea of giving them a chance for what they accomplished.
As I said, I'll get deeper into that with some of the films later on in the series, but in terms of Sorcerer's Stone - or Philosopher's Stone, for everyone else outside the U.S. currently shaking their head at me - it is, essentially, the only entry in the series (outside of Chamber of Secrets) that could possibly hope to satisfy purists. Aspects are cut and changed, sure, but the end result is a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, particularly in comparison to its successors.
Sorcerer's Stone is also the simplest and shortest book in the series, which makes it ironic that the film actually has a longer running time than most of the other adaptations. This in and of itself isn't ultimately a problem, but in looking back at the film all these years later, its length starts to creak simply because it has begun to feel its age, making it a bit harder to sit through as a result.
For instance, one of the biggest sticking points about the film remains the acting, chiefly from the kids. While Emma Watson's Hermione and Tom Felton's Draco are the real standouts, it's unfortunate that at times Daniel Radcliffe's inexperience sticks out. Considering his youth and the fact he got better with age, it's hard to fault him, but the occasional stiffness and awkward line delivery - something that does happen with almost all the kids, however - can't be ignored, mainly because he's the one who really has to carry the movie, making it more glaring than anyone else.
That said, it's incredible that the casting here in this film paid off. Beyond the fact the main group turned out to all be solid actors by the end of the franchise's run, it's hard not to be astounded that the casting of the minor kid roles, from Matthew Lewis (Neville) to James and Oliver Phelps (Fred and George), ended up just as strong in the end. So many faces are introduced in this film that don't get bigger roles until later down the line, and the fact that none of the important kids ended up having to be recast is a wonder that everyone involved in the casting of the film should be - and I'm sure is and will be - proud of forever.
On top of that, the kids are complimented by a number of fantastic adult actors, many of whom would go on to see their roles expanded later on. The film is stacked with heavyweights including John Hurt, Richard Griffiths, Julie Walters, John Cleese, David Bradley, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, the late Richard Harris - who I feel captured the calm, twinkle-eyed charm of Albus Dumbledore in a way that his replacement, Michael Gambon, didn't entirely - and, of course, Alan Rickman, who despite not appearing as many likely envisioned the character sold Severus Snape in a way the series couldn't have done without.
The adult cast more than outshines the younger cast, but that's to be expected, and the fact that the kids even managed to hold their own in the first place despite their inherent weaknesses is to be commended. The only downside to it is that those weaknesses are jarring regardless, especially when compounded with the film's other less-than-stellar aspects, one of which is the incredibly dated CGI.
Just a few weeks after the film was released, the first Lord of the Rings film, The Fellowship of the Ring, hit theaters, and the difference between the two 15 years on is stark, but a great example nonetheless in terms of their respective special effects. Though Fellowship features the occasional CGI cave troll and orc mobs and so on, the film still exudes an aura of timelessness, its effects not feeling their age anywhere near what is found in Sorcerer's Stone, which has a cave troll of its own that nowadays looks like it stepped out of a low-budget video game rather than something that should’ve resulted from a big budget film production.
Whereas Fellowship's effects are blended in quite well, revisiting Sorcerer's Stone only opens one's eyes to just how much poor CGI is implemented. I hate to call it cheap, because it isn't, but its obvious age has made it appear cheap. The Quidditch sequence in particular sticks out as a huge eyesore, as the series was far from perfecting the imagery of characters taking flight on broomstick, and entirely CGI characters like Fluffy the three-headed dog or the centaur Firenze don’t fare any better.
But while the CGI hasn't held up, the practical production design still does in spades. From Harry's first big visit to Diagon Alley to all the nooks and crannies of Hogwarts to the goblin-filled halls of Gringotts, the sets - and costuming, while we're at it - are still visual treats that all rightfully became iconic, and it's hard not to be swept up in Harry's journey as he tries to take all the sights of Diagon Alley in or as the Hogwarts Express travels across the lush English countryside.
Speaking of iconic, I can't go any further without bringing up John Williams' work for the film. Williams only worked up through Prisoner of Azkaban before stepping away from the series, and while each subsequent composer brought something novel to their respective films, none ever truly escaped from the shadow of Williams' accomplishments (or the "What Could've Been" aspect had Williams stuck through to the end). Hedwig's Theme became an instant modern classic, and stayed with the series long after Williams left as its primary theme.
Of Williams' three scores for the series, my favorite is his work on Prisoner, but that's not to say I don't love his work here. In many ways, it feels as though his work on Steven Spielberg's Hook in 1991 was practice for his work here, as the two share some incredibly striking similarities, but it never feels as though Williams is phoning it in by evoking the past. Williams is a master for a reason, and the score for Sorcerer's Stone really captures the whimsy, joy, and mystery of the Wizarding World and Harry's introduction to it, particularly the pure innocence inherent in these early days before Voldemort returned to power and the series became much darker.
That groundwork Williams laid for the series is also symbolic of the film itself. For what faults it has - some weak acting, dated CGI, etc. - I'll always have to laud the film for pulling off a final product that stuck true to the spirit of the book and gave fans a great if imperfect adaptation to enjoy. Aside from merely interpreting the book's narrative, it had the staggering task of bringing everything to life visually in a way that fans would love and introduce so many important concepts, from terminology like "muggles" to the ins and outs of Quidditch to all kinds of magic, to those in the audience who'd never touched the books.
Going back to my earlier point about people I've talked about the film with who condemn it - and the series as a whole - for not cramming in everything, one has to remember that they weren't only made for book readers. As someone who ate the books up, it's hard for me to sort out just how much Sorcerer's Stone works for someone who knows nothing about it going in, since, perhaps unconsciously, holes and questions can be filled by my own knowledge of how things play out in the book. I can't imagine someone jumping into, say, Goblet of Fire without having seen the first three films having any hope of understanding what's going on, but there's so much effort taken by Sorcerer's Stone to try and accommodate everyone that it seems relatively easy for newcomers to easily get swept up in it. Like the book itself, new information isn't simply dumped all at once but doled out over time, and even if non-book readers may still get lost occasionally, it's hard to see how anyone could be truly overwhelmed by it to the point of being disconnected, which is an incredible feat.
Sorcerer's Stone was responsible for building this world in an image fans could both recognize and be surprised by and new fans could be sucked into, and to that end, it succeeds. Some of the pacing is a little off, but what the film cuts from the book doesn't feel like a loss. In the book, for example, the gang has to help smuggle Hagrid's dragon Norbert away only to end up in detention after being caught in the halls after hours; in the film, this event is done away with, Norbert being taken away by Dumbledore and the gang still winding up in detention regardless, saving the film an unnecessary 10 to 15 minutes that would've served the narrative no real favors, particularly since Norbert himself ultimately has no bearing on the series as a whole. It's a cut that I know some people are bothered by, but it's an example of fat being trimmed that works on paper but not on film, and one of the series' wiser cuts.
However, since no one could really account for what would matter by the end of the series - in terms of the films, that is - so much is packed in here that feels needless in retrospect. Seeing characters like Nearly Headless Nick, Firenze, or Lee Jordan is great, but all of them are cut from the series after either this film or Chamber of Secrets, disappearing into thin air despite having a presence in future books. From the perspective of a book reader, it's disappointing, because of course we'd love to keep seeing them around, but if one looks solely at the film series in the context of being a standalone entity, it's almost a waste of time even introducing or spending time with these characters when they don't end up bearing any weight on the rest of the films anyway.
In many ways, in its Herculean effort to bring the world of Harry Potter to life, Sorcerer's Stone had to serve as the franchise's exploratory phase. Almost everything was thrown at the wall to see what stuck, but inevitably not everything was going to make it to the next film and beyond simply by design, which led to some disappointment by purists as the series went on and shed much of the excess found here and in Chamber of Secrets in an effort to streamline the story further and further. The purist in me could get mad about certain liberties the film takes, like the complete excision of Peeves the Poltergeist or the pointless change of the Bloody Baron from an unpleasant specter to a Captain Hook-looking goofball, for instance, but to do so would be a waste of time at this point; what we got is what we got, and to dwell over trivial decisions would be to take away from analyzing the film's important larger faults and merits.
As much as I love the book, Sorcerer's Stone has never been my favorite entry in the series, and the same can be said for the movie as well. I can still find myself pulled into it, but it is by far one of the weakest entries in the franchise, if not the weakest. As nobly faithful as it is to the source, it sometimes feels too beholden to the book, becoming a labor of excess as a result. It's trapped in a bubble of sorts, because had it been anything less at the time, fans would've been unhappy, but with the gift of retrospection, it really could've benefited from a bit of trimming.
In the end, though, as much as the wrinkles have begun to show, I can't help but enjoy it. A good adaptation, as I mentioned earlier, captures the spirit of what it's adapting, and Sorcerer's Stone definitely delivered - even in an imperfect way - in bringing to life a world we all wish we could've visited while getting lost in the pages of Rowling's books. Even as its weaknesses can make the experience of watching it feel like more of a slog than some of the later films, I wouldn't trade spending the extra time in this universe even as I can readily admit it could’ve been shortened.
From seeing Harry, Ron, and Hermione bond over the course of their first year together to watching the friendship between Harry and Hagrid take root to seeing places like the Great Hall and Diagon Alley and Platform 9 3/4 and the Forbidden Forest made "real" never fails to bring a smile to my face, as it all taps into my nostalgia for the book itself. Given a choice to pick one of the films to watch, it's not the one that would ever be my first choice, but it has enough going for it that I still wouldn't complain if I didn’t have said choice. It's admirable if flawed, and without it setting the table, we wouldn't have gotten to enjoy the real meal that followed over the next decade.
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