#ThrowbackThursday – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Original US release date: November 16, 2001
Production budget: $125,000,000
Worldwide gross: $974,755,371

I once fell hard for a girl who was a huge Harry Potter fan.  She was pretty much the only girl with which I ever thought I could have a chance for something real and lasting.  Unfortunately, the Sorting Hat placed me into the Friend Zone.

Also, she hates me, now.

Luckily, I discovered the Harry Potter franchise before we met, so the connection between her and the property isn’t too strong for me to continue enjoying these movies (and books, should I ever choose to re-read them).  Of course, as with any franchise, some of the films are better than others.  But this is where it all started: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

(Yes, my overseas friends, I’m aware that the original title is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  I don’t know what to tell you.  I’m American and I’m using the American title.  Yes, I agree that it shouldn’t have been changed but it was, probably due to the typical American’s ignorance about . . . well . . . most everything.  Even WWE changed the spelling of “Seamus” to “Sheamus” so we morons would know how to pronounce it.  At least J.K. Rowling didn’t go that far.)

When this movie was released, I hadn’t read any of the books.  I was in grad school and just kept hearing about Harry Potter this and Harry Potter that.  The film hit and made an absurd amount of money, so I went to see it with an open mind.  I wanted to know what the fuss was about and I also wanted to be part of the conversation.

I had some faith in what I was about to see because of Chris Columbus being attached as the director.  He had been pretty reliable up to that point in his career with films such as Adventures in Babysitting, Mrs. Doubtfire, and of course both Home Alone films under his belt.  He has a heartfelt way of filmmaking that few others do and that certainly carried over into Sorcerer’s Stone.

Do I even need to go into what the film is about?  Here’s the gist: Harry Potter is a little orphaned boy being raised by his aunt and uncle who discovers he was born to a wizard and a witch.  Thus, he sets off to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in order to fulfill his perceived destiny and pay homage to his parents.

That’s of course as oversimplified as it gets but I’d hate to say anything more than that in case someone out there has actually never seen the films or read the books.  When I first saw this film, I was initially a little disappointed that none of the creatures are original to the story.  I’ve of course grown in maturity and intelligence since then and now realize that that isn’t the point.  The idea is that these creatures were always real.  But that’s not where the creativity and brilliance of J.K. Rowling’s story lie.

The Harry Potter series is built upon a solid foundation of story and character.  The world that Rowling crafted is immense, complex, delicate, and something completely unlike anything that came before it or has come since.

Seeing the first film, again, is interesting as it’s obvious how much the lead trio of Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), and Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) have grown.  Not just physiologically, of course, but as actors.  Filling these three roles with the perfect cast was paramount to the long-term success of the franchise.  Warner Brothers, Rowling, and Columbus succeeded in that but there were some growing pains along the way.  In Sorcerer’s Stone, from that group, only Watson comes off as completely comfortable and natural, charming the audience with every line.  Radcliffe isn’t quite as good, but he’s fine.  It’s Grint who really struggles.  He has exactly three facial expressions: blank, smiling, and irreversibly bewildered.  Thankfully, all three eventually developed into quality talents.  Watson has the huge part of Belle in Disney’s live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast coming up, next year.  (No pressure, Emma.)  And Radcliffe just starred in his best movie and gave his best performance, yet, in the tremendous Swiss Army Man.

The film isn’t perfect.  The Dursleys are over-the-top and cartoony (of the three, only Fiona Shaw’s Aunt Petunia gets a genuine moment and Shaw doesn’t waste it), there are a few small logistical issues, and the effects are a little shaky.  And, though Quiddich is exciting and makes for a totally unique cinematic experience, the rules are deeply flawed.  But in the grand scheme of things, those are relatively minor issues.

The real genius in the construction and execution of this inaugural chapter is that Rowling designs it to work as a standalone story.  After all, there’s no reason to demand a commitment from your characters for six more parts until your first part is a success.  But she also lays an enormous amount of groundwork for the future and she does it with the artfulness of a true master (along with Columbus, who deserves credit, as well).  Why is it so artful?  Because it’s invisible.  The audience has no idea that she’s doing it.  What appear to be throwaway lines, unimportant background characters, meaningless one-liners, and harmless diversions end up being critical pieces in a giant jigsaw puzzle.  We just didn’t have the box top for reference so there was no way for us to know it.  But in a time when we have Warner Brothers shoehorning characters and forcing scenes into movies like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad in awkward, distracting ways in an effort to build their DC Cinematic Universe all they have to do is look within their very own catalog to see how a true auteur does it.  (Marvel admittedly struggled with this a bit, at first, as well, but not this badly and they’ve perfected it, since.)

There is a whimsical feeling of actual magic and wonder in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that seemed to lessen in the later films as the series matured in theme and tone.  The little things – the school uniforms, the Hogwarts Express, lighting the school with natural light, and so on – really add to the ambiance and assist the audience with immersing themselves into the world that in which Harry lives.  Sorcerer’s Stone isn’t the worst film in the series, nor is it the best.  But it’s the warmest and revisiting it feels oddly comforting, in a way.  This movie came along during the holiday season of one of the darkest times in the history of America and, eventually, the entire world.  It represented hope and optimism and an endearing naiveté.  And re-watching it brings those feelings back.  In a way, it functions as its own Mirror of Erised, allowing us to envision the best in ourselves and the world around us, even if just for a moment before the credits roll and we return to the harshness of reality.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone shows its age a bit if you only look at it with your eyes.  But if you watch it with your heart, it will always be timeless.  It’s flawed, but, in a way, the flaws add to its appeal and elevate its charm.  It rises above its problems, as do Harry, Hermione, and Ron.  As can we all.  Even from way over here . . . in the Friend Zone.

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