Over the years there have been culture phenomena I’ve avoided for various reasons. It could be as fickle as my mood, the presence of Eric Robert’s Ugly Sister (or ERUS, as Justin coined), or the fact that I just missed the entry point before the culture became saturated by the book, tv, or film series. In “Better Late Than Never,” I look past my objections to see if the culture was right or wrong to embrace the phenomenon so strongly.
Title: Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone
Release Date: November 16th, 2001
Objection: At the time, the “Harry Potter” book series was already taking over book stores in a way that would only be equaled by “Twilight” some years later. As I wasn’t too keen to read long fantasy books, I skipped them. When the film came out, there was an evangelical undertone to the fans when they learned I didn’t care about “Harry Potter.” My ambivalence toward the series turned to outright hatred during film or book releases. In the case of “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” my objection was further aided by the presence of Chris Columbus in the director’s chair. Though he wrote “The Goonies” and directed “Adventures in Babysitting,” I found as he matured as a director his films became less and less for me.
The film: I don’t think I can find the right metaphor to adequately describe the geologic pace at which “Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone” moves. While I understand the film is meant to cover the entire first year of Harry’s tutelage at Hogwart’s, the film does everything in its power to make you feel every single day of that year. Every scene is dull and lifeless, every actor is going through the motions, and perhaps most criminal, the first forty minutes of the film are complete unnecessary.
You don’t believe me? Consider this: Until the moment Harry gets to Hogwarts, what moment couldn’t be covered in one or two lines of dialogue? Are his … ugh, muggle relatives so important to the plot? Is the shopping trip vital to his destiny? While these scene may appear in the book, they do not aid the film and actually slow down the most interesting aspect of the film: the school for young wizards. I’ll even be generous and say the movie almost comes to life at the train station and the scene in which Harry gets his wand is a genuinely clever and interesting idea (though executed poorly).
I’d even argue that scene would make a better opening than the Wizard’s delivering baby Harry to his aunt and uncle. John Hurt introduces Harry’s relationship to the dark past far better than any of the earlier scenes … and consider the powerhouse of talent in that pre-credit moment. This is the key problem with the first forty minutes. The only important piece of information is that scar. Consider how much more compelling it would be for Harry to first learn that’s he’s famous while in the train car with the red head kid. Harry (and the audience) is told so much in that first act that it just weighs the film down.
The rest of the film has a sickening case of whimsy. This is my key problem with the film’s tone. Everything is meant to be big and special and awe-inspiring. John Williams’s music supports this concept with the constant choral refrains at every vista, magical feat, and owl-mail delivery. The only problem, nothing is really that special so it all comes off as “oh, look at this whimsical thing we’re making. It’s fun to see kids learn to use their wands, right?” The answer: no.
The pace continues to be off as the Harry, the Red Haired Kid and the Girl slowly unravel the mystery of the third floor. That investigation happens over the course an entire school year and keeps getting lost in all the whimsical learning scenes. Every time the film reminds you of that plot, it feel so contrived. There are, essentially, two films happening here. One is “The Worst Witch,” about a bunch of first year magic students. The other is, “Hero’s Journey,” in which a young man learns about his fated destiny and the forces of evil looking to stop him. They could co-exist as one movie, but more often than not the film feels obligated to serve “Hero’s Journey,” while it fumbles “The Worst Witch.”
And the problems with tone, pace, and whimsy can only be laid at the foot of director Chris Columbus. Despite writing “The Goonies,” he seems quite uncomfortable making a children’s film. In my unscientific pole of school-aged cousins and my girlfriend’s daughter, kids can barely sit through the first five minutes let along the entire TWO HOUR AND TWENTY-TWO MINUTE run time.
Beyond the issues highlighted above, there is also a polish on the film that makes it very distant and inaccessible. It really is a marvel they brought him back for a second film as the first is such a poor introduction.
Verdict: Sadly, I really do not have enough evidence to pronounce judgment on “Harry Potter” as a whole. While I was right to skip the first film, the others must be watched and assessed in order to make an informed decision. That said, “Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone” is a ghastly mediocre adaptation of a novel that is meant to do one thing: keep us interested. It was only the cultural momentum of “Harry Potter” that kept the film series afloat until the so-called “good ones” appeared. I’ll get to those, too. Ah, but that’s for another time …