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Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

Directed by: Chris Columbus

Premise: The first film in the Harry Potter series. An adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s novel, the film portrays Harry Potter’s (Daniel Radcliffe) first year at Hogwart’s School for Witchcraft and Wizardry in which he makes friends with Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and learns the truth about his identity. 

What Works: The Sorcerer’s Stone is the first chapter in the Harry Potter series and the film establishes the cinematic and storytelling style for the pictures to follow. A common challenge for first chapters in fantasy franchises is to strike a balance between exposition and dramatization. If the film spends too much time on exposition, it drowns out the story but if there isn’t enough exposition, the audience has no way to orient themselves in the fantasy world and future episodes are burdened with explaining things when the viewer just wants to get on with the story. The Sorcerer’s Stone balances exposition and dramatization pretty well, introducing the important characters and concepts without belaboring the detail. But the strength of The Sorcerer’s Stone is not so much in its story as it is in its casting. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson are convincing in their roles as Harry, Ron and Hermione, but the film is really given its credibility by the cast of adults, played by actors such as Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, and the late Richard Harris. The actors treat the material seriously and their performances do a lot to establish the credibility of the fantasy world of Harry Potter.

What Doesn’t: Although The Sorcerer’s Stone successfully establishes its story world, the way the film actually tells its narrative is not nearly as successful. The Sorcerer’s Stone shows some of the characteristic flaws of films adapted from popular books in that it hesitates to cut anything from the literary source, maintaining everything (even its plot holes) and so the pacing of the story drags in places. This flaw can be heard in the film’s dialogue, which gets clunky and the child actors struggle at times with the verbose sentence. This faithfulness also affects the film’s visual style, which features few artistic flourishes and as a result it comes across as rote, especially when viewing the film years after its initial release. In particular, the flashback sequence of the death of Harry’s parents lacks any style or dramatic execution. In addition, the special effects of The Sorcerer’s Stone vary dramatically; while some of the effects are entirely convincing, the computer generated backgrounds and landscapes, especially in the Quidditch match, look like visuals from an old school videogame.

DVD extras: The two disc DVD includes deleted scenes, featurettes, interviews, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a fun picture that will satisfy fans of Rowling’s book. Although it is faithful to a fault it does manages to set up the story and put in place the elements that pay off in later films.

Episode: #48 (April 17, 2005); Revised #349 (July 24, 2011)