A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 511 – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – July 24th, 2011

Ahh, it is time for Potter week! This is something we’d been puzzling over a bit, actually, because there isn’t a single Harry Potter movie under two hours long and on nights when I work until 9 p.m. that’s just not the best of ideas. We try to keep our 9 p.m. nights to hour and a half movies or close to it. With seven Potter movies on DVD and all of them at or above two hours and twenty minutes long, well, when were we going to watch them? We didn’t want to break them up, so we had to find a week when I wasn’t working. Fortunately, I’m on vacation for the next two weeks! Next week is Shark Week, and we have Plans for that. But before we get to the sharks, we’ve got some wizards to watch.

We begin at the beginning with the start of Harry’s story. And I have to say, I am fond of the Potter books. I have a fondness for them that goes beyond being a librarian who loves seeing kids get excited about reading. But let’s start there. The last of the Potter movies came out not long ago and do you know how many Harry Potter books we had left on our shelves as of my last day of work before this vacation? None. Not a single copy of any of the seven main books in the series. Tales of Beedle the Bard? Gone. The Quidditch and Fantastical Beasts books Rowling put out for charity? Wiped out. The books are gone and the movies are gone and this is years and years after the book series ended. There is something amazingly compelling about the world of Harry Potter and it has persisted in amazing ways.

Personally, I didn’t get into the books until I was out of college. A few of my friends had read them and claimed they were loads of fun, but it took me a while to get to them. It was almost an overhype situation, but I dealt with it by avoiding the entire thing until one day at a book store when we grabbed all of the currently released books and I whipped through them in record time. I never got much into the fandom, which seemed huge and intimidating. It still is. But I highly recommend reading How Harry Potter Became The Boy Who Lived Forever by Lev Grossman for a fascinating little piece on the phenomenon of fandom, specifically Harry Potter. I think what makes these stories so easy for people to climb into and want to stay in for so long is that what Rowling did so well was worldbuilding. I can name flaw after flaw in the plotting and storytelling. To be honest, by mid-book 5 I wasn’t too pleased with a lot of what was going on and I’m still in denial about some events in the last book. But the world itself is amazingly well drawn. And what this movie does so well is to take that world and put it on screen.

There is a richness to the world on display in this movie. Hogwarts School has been around for over a thousand years and the Wizarding world that young Harry Potter finds himself a part of has been around for even longer. And with the details put into the locations, such as the school and the magical shopping district of Diagon Alley, it truly feels as though they’ve been there forever. Andy and I had a chance to see a traveling exhibit of costumes and props from the movies a little while back and the detail on everything – from posters and signs on the Gryffindor common room notice board to toys and games, all things you never see close up in the movies – was amazing. And it shows in the movie here. It’s a brilliantly rich way to introduce the world and draw viewers into the story.

Not that the story itself isn’t compelling. It follows in the grand tradition of many stories where children find they can do magic. Harry Potter, orphaned as a baby and left with his odious aunt, uncle and cousin, finds out that he’s been accepted to a school for student witches and wizards. Once at school he meets new friends (Ron and Hermione), makes a few enemies (Draco and Professor Snape) and gets himself in a whole mess of trouble while also managing to have a wonderful time at his amazing new school where the staircases move and the paintings talk and there are ghosts floating around the great hall. Harry finds out that his parents were killed by an evil wizard named Voldemort and that he somehow managed to deflect Voldemort’s spell (as a baby), killing him and leaving Harry with a lightning bold shaped scar on his forehead. He’s been famous his whole life without knowing it.

There are loads more details but the important part for the story is that Voldemort didn’t really die and he’s trying to regain a corporeal form and Harry and his friends are the only ones who can stop him. Now, leaving aside the ridiculousness of Headmaster Dumbledore leaving the school when he surely knew damn well that rotten things were afoot, and three first year students getting through all of the tests and traps set up by the school’s professors to protect the Sorcerer’s Stone (which Voldemort needs), things go fairly well. The plot here isn’t the movie’s fault because, you see, the movie isn’t trying to be an adaptation of the book. It’s trying to put the book on screen, page by page, line by line. And in that it succeeds admirably.

Part of what makes the movie a success is the detailed sets and set dressing I already mentioned. And part of it is the casting, which is nothing short of amazing. I love every single casting decision made for this movie. Yes, even the Weasley twins who ended up lanky instead of stocky. It all makes the world thoroughly convincing, which helps shore up the story’s shortcomings. And really, I’d already forgiven the shortcomings in the book because it’s just plain fun to read. It doesn’t have to be great cinema in order to be entertaining because the story is fun and the sort of thing that makes every ten year old who reads it wait anxiously for their eleventh birthday even if they know that no owl will be arriving with a letter from Hogwarts. It’s not the story that’s the point for me. It’s the world. And this movie introduces the world and the people in it so magnificently that I find it very difficult to fault it for anything.

July 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

July 24, 2011

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

We’ve wanted to review all of our Harry Potter movies for come time now, but there’s a problem: they’re too long. Under normal circumstances Amanda gets out of work at nine PM two nights a week, which doesn’t leave us much time to watch long movies on those nights. There isn’t one of these films that is under two hours long, and most of them are considerably longer, which made it nearly impossible for us to review them all in a series as they should be watched. This week, however, Amanda is on vacation. So Potter it is. Seven Harry Potter movies in seven days (and we’ll probably go see the last one in theaters when we’re done.)

Up until this movie came out in theaters I did a pretty good job of avoiding Harry Potter. I had heard of the books of course, but as often happens with things that are insanely popular I found myself disinclined to get caught up in the fervor. I didn’t read any of the books until well after the third one had come out. My recollection is that, once I finally did pick them up, I couldn’t put them down. I think I got the first one through a book club I was a member of, and when I was done reading it Amanda and I went into town and bought the other two and read all three of them in a single weekend. It’s not surprising that I ended up loving the books – they’re exactly the kind of book that I always enjoyed as a child. Tales of magic and adventure just around the corner from our humdrum lives.

The first book is not the best in the series. It’s very tentative and Jo hasn’t really found her voice yet. I’ve often said that the opening chapters with Harry and the Dursleys reminds me very much of Roal Dahl in tone with the progressively more outlandish attempts that Harry’s uncle makes to escape from the letters. The mystery at the heart of the book which the intrepid trio of Harry, Ron and Hermione find themselves investigating – that of the Sorcerer’s (or Philosopher’s) stone – is not as well constructed and the world doesn’t have as epic a feel as in later books. But that’s not really the appeal of the book to me. The first book is all about introducing the characters and the world of Harry Potter.

The movie is very much the same. It’s not the best in the series. It spends so much time being meticulously faithful to the source material that it doesn’t work perfectly as a film. It feels as though it is attempting to get every word on every page into a single movie, and that although much of the book is full of fantastic imagery the genre of film doesn’t necessarily work in the same way that a book does. A good example is the text around the edge of the mirror of Erised. Now when reading the book it’s a simple matter to figure out for yourself what that text says, and therefore what the mirror does. On film it’s only there for a couple seconds as the camera pans across it, so there’s no chance for the same joy of discovery. Of course superfans will point out that Norbert’s part in the film is very much curtailed and Peeves is missing entirely, but you take my point – just putting everything that’s in the book up on the screen isn’t going to necessarily make a great movie.

I would argue that this is not a great movie. What it is, however, is a glimpse into a great world. A couple years ago Amanda and I went to a traveling museum exhibit that held a wealth of costumes and pieces of set dressing from the movies, and it was astonishing the level of detail that went into these pieces. Practically everything in the wizarding world from the wands and tomes to the clothes and toys was hand crafted for the screen with a common goal: to bring the world of the books to life. My favorite piece on exhibit was a quidditch board game complete with tiny figurines to represent the players and a box that resembles a quidditch pitch. You don’t actually see it in the movie – it’s just something in Ron and Harry’s room at Hogwarts – but these grea t pieces of set dressing fill every frame of the movie, making Hogwarts a real place for the first time.

The casting too is brilliant. Robbie Coltrane IS Hagrid. Nobody but Alan Rickman could have done as well as Severus Snape. All the ancillary characters from the Weasleys to Seamus, Neville to Oliver, Lee to Dean are perfectly cast. And of course there are the core trio of Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson. Sure Hermione doesn’t have her signature buck teeth (which she magicked away during book four) but otherwise these are the characters exactly as they are described on the page, and it’s kind of magical just to see them come to life like this.

This movie is not just a movie. That’s the key to understanding it. It’s part of a massive media empire that reaches from books to games to toys and figures and candy. Amanda an I, for example, have a very large collection of the WotC Harry Potter trading card game cards. (We pull them out every once in a while to build and try out new decks. It’s sad that the cards have all been out of print for several years now.) There’s even a theme park now, which some day I would very much like to attend. The movies themselves are an incredible accomplishment – filmed almost non-stop over the course of ten years. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see anything on this scale ever again.

So what if this movie isn’t perfect? So what if it’s too long and too full of itself? So what if the confrontation at the end between Harry Potter and Voldemort makes no sense? That’s not important. This is Harry F**ing Potter!

July 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment