Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Review by Diana and the Undercover Tourists
Director: Christopher Columbus
Rating: Super Star Destroyer!
More than any of the other Harry Potter movies, this was the one they had to get right. There were so many unknowns, not the least of which was can a movie with unknown kids be good? What's more, because of some proposals to make this series more "American," the production company which snared the contract for the franchise promised author J.K. Rowling that they'd used an "all-British" cast -- no Americans. In addition, the screenplay writer Steve Kloves was in tight conference with Rowling for the whole process. For one thing, not all the books have been written yet (there were only 3 done at the time) and he needed to make sure he didn't cut or add anything that would be significant in later installments. And he needed to please Rowling, who did not want adults playing teens, and for whom the characters and details were all-important.
There are always nervous tremors when a well-loved story has to make the transition into other media, in any direction. For instance, Star Wars movies tend to make mediocre or lousy books. Lord of the Rings was rather bad (and incomplete) as animated movies (though The Hobbit was okay). But then, there are the successes, like Peter Jackson's live action/animated special effects effort for LOTR, or the movie adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Witches. Of course, fantasy stories these days require a lot of computer graphics and special effects, which is why I tend to classify these movies as "live action/animations."
They did, indeed, get this story right! It's impossible to express how perfect the casting was; apparently, J.K. Rowling said "Daniel Radcliffe is Harry. I felt like I had met the son I never had." (At this point, she was still single with a daughter only. She has, of course, since had another child, which had been cited as one of the many reasons Order of the Phoenix's publication had been delayed.) These child actors were stellar; director Columbus had plucked them from hundred and thousands of other applicants. In the case of Radcliffe, who's parents were not keen about him applying for the part (to the point that an insistent Columbus had been told to "forget about him") was discovered when he was sitting behind the director during a play in London. Emma Watson had done poetry readings, but had no film or media experience previously. Rupert Grint had only been in school plays before. And they are perfect as Harry, Hermione, and Ron. The adults were more established -- Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, etc. -- in Hollywood and in British productions. And they gave credibility and gravity to the fictional Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and they did suit the characters exactly.
Because of the promise for an all-UK cast, some actors were likely hired primarily for their British origins. I remember reading years ago about how residents of Britannia see their favorite stars -- in a continuum of productions. People like John Hurt (Mr. Ollivander) show up in Shakespeare productions, on the Muppet Show (first produced in the UK, if you remember!), on Saturday Night Live, as well as in hundreds of major and minor movies ... and fans enjoy seeing his similarities from one role to another. In contrast (the article said), it seems Americans like fresh faces, and often demand a new look and character for any one actor. Don't know how true that is, of course ... but you do end up recognizing characters like Hurt from other movies ... or Richard Griffiths (Uncle Verson Dursley) from Chariots of Fire or Sleepy Hollow or Ghandi in not-quite-minor roles. For many of us, it's a bit of a thrill to recognize these actors. (Like the way we recognized "General Maximillian Veers" in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets!) (In contrast, Zoë Wanamaker (Madame Hooch) is American, but raised in the UK; we guess she naturalized?)
John Williams did the music, and it was awesome ... once again, he created themes around people and places and orchestrated and arranged so that it all fit in seamlessly. As George Lucas said, he was thinking the music should tell the story without scenes, without dialogue, and Steven Spielberg recommended Williams, who had created such music for Jaws, and the rest is legend! His compositions are somewhat like Tchaikovsky's, in that they are "whistleable" by the common person, but they fit so well with a higher purpose. I'm still humming that theme from Diagon Alley! (As another reviewer pointed out though, there were many similarities to The Phantom Menace's music themes, done at a similar time, and that was a bit unsettling. But I've seen this DVD enough that I've now accepted it as belonging to the Harry Potter world.)
The DVD is a real family pleaser -- we were an audience ranging in ages from 5 to 55, and we all enjoyed it immensely. The younger ones were frightened by some of the scary scenes, but with so many people around, it was less scary to them than if they were with only people their own age. They really enjoyed seeing the very young Harry, Hermione and Ron endeavor, persevere, and ultimately succeed at things the kids (and many adults) find daunting -- joining a sports team, playing chess, even trying to pass difficult exams! We tried to watch Chamber of Secrets, but it was late and the oldies fell asleep before the younger set! So we'll review that under these conditions next time!