In the run-up to the release of the final film in the Potter saga, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, fellow correspondent Jonathan suggested that we team up to offer our recaps and thoughts on the prior films in the series. As it falls to me to provide the launch, I'll kick things off with my plot synopsis and review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's (Philosopher's) Stone.
We first meet put-upon orphan Harry in his under-stair cupboard "room" at 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey. Harry is under the care, so to speak, of his odious uncle and aunt, Vernon and Petunia Dursley, and endlessly bullied and marginalized by their spoilt son Dudley. A surprising conversation at the zoo with a snake, a seemingly-endless spate of owl-delivered letters, and the umbrella-wielding appearance of an apparent giant combine to announce Harry's 11th birthday news: he's a wizard. And, not only that, his is the most famous name in the wizarding community, as he is miraculously the only one to have survived a direct attack by the legendary and deadly wizard gone bad, He Who Must Not Be Named, Lord Voldemort. And it's time for him to go to school.
Hagrid whisks young Harry off to Diagon Alley to purchase his school supplies - wands and owls and robes being ever so much more interesting than notebooks and protractors - and thence to King's Cross Station, where he boards the Hogwarts Express at Platform 9 3/4 for the journey of a lifetime. On board he meets those who are to come to be his truest friends: ginger-haired Ron Weasley of the eclectic and decidedly non-aristocratic Weasley family, and the bookish Muggle-born prodigy Hermione Granger.
What follows is a whirlwind of introduction to Wizarding 101 as the first-year students are sorted into their Hogwarts Houses and begin their studies: potions, transfiguration, broom-riding, and the always-daunting Defence Against The Dark Arts curriculum. Along the way the trio encounters a mysterious forbidden area in Hogwarts Castle that appears to sport a series of traps awaiting those who would seek the prize it conceals: the Sorcerer's (or, for UK and Canadian audiences, Philosopher's) Stone, which confers immortality on its bearer. The half-alive Lord Voldemort obviously has a desperate need for such a magical artifact, and at the climax of the conflict Harry alone stands in his way. The storyline ends with Voldemort's temporary setback, the solidification of Harry's friendships with Ron and Hermione, the benevolent mentoring of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, and the promise of more adventure to come.
The filmed version of Book One in the franchise has been given short shrift as being only competently directed and acted, lacking some of the heights of dramatic tension achieved in the later installments. I think it's important for us to remember that one of the primary goals of the first film in the series was to establish the world in which the current and then future stories would be told. In the science fiction realm this is known as world-building, and it requires a certain amount of explication that doesn't necessarily lend itself to high drama. Hence the moving staircases, the introduction to Quidditch, the Mirror of Erised, the forest beyond Hagrid's hut, and the freshly-hatched dragon's egg. We need to touch all of these elements to get a sense of the environment in which we're operating. On a certain level, the first film is like a guided tour bus showing us the highlights of the Hogwarts world. We hop on, and we hop off, but we never delve too deep.
Let us remember, too, that the three core point-of-view characters anchoring us to the narrative are pre-teens. The first story in the sequence, more than any of the others, is meant to be viewed through childhood eyes. And, if you ask me, this film achieves that goal well. The challenges faced by Harry, Ron and Hermione on their journey to seek out the Stone are perfectly scaled to their age and comparative lack of sophistication. Each of them has a challenge to meet, and they meet them on a childhood-appropriate level. It's intended to be and is executed mainly as a kid's film, at the end of the day, but I think it gives adults enough in terms of production values, storyline, and gorgeous supporting performances by the likes of Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris and Robbie Coltrane to also keep the moms and dads satisfied.
The John Williams score is, perhaps, a little too "twee" on the whole, though you can't deny the man's talent for establishing a musical motif. And the atmospherics are there, whether you're looking at a pajama-clad Harry gazing out his Gryffindor tower window, loyal Hedwig at his side, contemplating the future; or the kids braving a real-life version of Wizard's Chess where the stakes go well beyond the gameboard.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's (Philosopher's) Stone, in my view - while not a standout in filmmaking or performance terms - represents a worthy launch to the franchise, laying the necessary groundwork for more complex narratives and more character-driven stories to be built upon its foundation.