Folks weren't too happy with my "Shelf Life" assessment of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation two weeks ago, and perhaps understandably so: the holidays, and holiday movies in particular, bring out the sentimentality, nostalgia, and often otherwise muted affection that folks feel at other times of the year and for other movies. But while I still plan to revisit It's a Wonderful Life next week – a film, I pre-emptively admit, I have no particular allegiance or fondness for – I figured I'd instead choose something safer, less passionately followed, less contentious: Harry Potter.
Of course I'm kidding. Few fan bases are as impassioned as those of J.K. Rowling's book series and their cinematic adaptations, and as a non-participant in its cultural phenomena, I recognize the shark-infested waters in which I find myself as I examine the artistic merits of a movie that is beloved by so, so, so many people. That said, I always liked the first film when I saw it in theaters, and was only too happy to revisit it when Warner Brothers re-released it in a deluxe Blu-ray set earlier this month.
The Facts: Released on November 16, 2001, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone launched the cinematic iteration of J.K. Rowling's steamroller book series about a young wizard uncovering the secrets of his deceased family, finding a new one at Hogwarts Academy, and carefully navigating a series of deadly challenges en route to becoming a world-famous magician. The film grossed just shy of $1 billion worldwide during its theatrical run, spawned seven sequels (including both parts of The Deathly Hallows), and made Harry a household name.
Currently the film enjoys a 78 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, although the love-hate camps seem pretty firmly divided: folks familiar with the novel didn't like it, while those uninitiated in Harry's world before the film found it to be pleasant enough entertainment. For my part, I fall into the latter category, never having read any of the books, and while I never found sufficient personal or (perhaps more importantly) professional motivation to see the rest of the films, I enjoyed the film upon its initial release.
What Still Works: The film's underlying theme is its greatest attribute – namely, this poor orphan's desperate search for a family – but as an introduction to the world of Hogwarts and wizardry, it's pretty great. Whereas other filmmakers were able to build upon the mythology of the first few books and take the series in more ambitious directions, director Chris Columbus successfully and mostly satisfyingly sets up and explores Harry's world, from his dusty digs in the world of Muggles to the cavernous mysteries that lurk around seemingly every corner at Hogwarts. Given the fact that much of the mythology is itself complicated, Columbus boils much of it down to its simplest and most digestible essence, which not only brought in countless new fans previous unfamiliar with Rowling's books, but establishing this is a viable franchise on film.
What Doesn't Work: In retrospect, The Sorcerer's Stone is just really kind of boring. Even as a fan the first time around, I began to lose interest after my initial fascination with revisiting it wore off, and stuck with it mainly just to see what happened, even though I didn't much care. Columbus managed to cast cute and vaguely interesting kids – he really deserves genuine credit for visually conceiving the entire Potter universe on film – but in this first installment, he doesn't know what to do with them except encourage them to be cute, ultimately generating some reactions from the fledgling thespians that are laughably bad.
Meanwhile, the film was released in the mid-days of computer animation, when artists and technical folks were still largely finding themselves when conceiving CGI characters and effects, and as a result stuff like the forest centaur and Voldemort look pretty awful. And finally, there are a few plot points that are kind of a cop-out, if not fully dumb; the appearance of the Sorcerer's Stone in Harry's pocket – in addition to the stone itself being an underwhelming physical object visually – feels like a cheat that the filmmakers used to get to the end of the story, especially since he, Hermione and Ron go through the tortures of the damned otherwise to get it. (Admittedly, this may be a direct translation of the original text or a change implemented by Columbus and company, but cinematically it feels like a major cheat at a moment that the movie needs something more substantial.)
What's The Verdict: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone doesn't really hold up, mostly because it's boring and sitcommy rather than being actively bad. That said, I recognize that the first film almost had to be that way, in order to introduce the world within the books to folks who hadn't read them, and also acknowledge that it kind of doesn't matter if it doesn't hold up – even if it's just to me personally – since the success of the film and it sequels has established a vast and passionate army of supporters who love every installment regardless of its cinematic qualities. Again, this happens to be one of the few cinematic phenomena that I never felt the need to follow or become a part of, so my analysis is strictly cinematic, and not meant to be a critique of the material or the original text, but with that said I do feel like The Sorcerer's Stone unfortunately shines with less luster than I once thought it did.