Film Reviews:

Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone

(Chris Columbus, US, 2001)

Chris Columbus' film of J. K. Rowlings best-seller Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone proves that a good story, well told can still be a prized commodity. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), an eleven year old orphan, is obliged to live with his selfish, obese Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) and Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths), and their bratty son. Like Cinderella, Harry discovers that he is destined for better things, in this case when a letter arrives inviting him to attend the Hogwarts school for Wizards. There, he meets his first real friends, the joker Ron (Rupert Grint) and logical Hermione (Emma Watson), and discovers his destiny as a powerful magician.

The story of Harry Potter closely follows the all-purpose mythic outline described by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which has provided the spine of Star Wars and The Matrix amongst many others. The story is therefore not just familiar, but the most familiar tale of them all, with a young hero being called to adventure, before moving out into a magical world of helpers and antagonists, and finally seizing the prize and returning home. What is remarkable is not just how entertaining a film this is, but how infinitely flexible and engaging this form of storytelling really is, in the hands of an imaginative writer. The acting by the young leads is excellent, especially Watson who makes the stuffy Hermione sympathetic and fun. Of the adults, Robbie Coltrane is great as Gamekeeper Hagid, but the cameos by such usual suspects as Maggie Smith, John Hurt, John Cleese, Julie Walters, and Zoe Wannamaker serve little purpose.  

The first part of the film, in which Harry discovers the existence of magic in his mundane suburban life, is beautifully handled, with the appearance of magic becoming literally bigger and bigger in his life: from a single envelope, to the arrival of an owl, then a train and finally the wonderfully illogical school of Hogwarts. Although unreal, the school, with its Great Hall, moving paintings, talking Sorting Hat and the set-piece game of Quidditch all have their equivalents in the real world, and can be understood as being reality seen through the eyes of an imaginative child on his first day at school.

After settling in at Hogwarts, the remainder of the film has Harry and friends encountering monsters and magical devices taken largely from classical and folk myths, and brought to life by variable-to-poor CGI effects. The nominal story-line of the search for the Philosophers Stone seems to be simply stumbled across, and serves only to provide the film with a very high number of fast paced set pieces. Despite lasting two and a half hours, the film is never boring, and, when I saw it, successfully held even the youngest in the audience rapt. While still following Campbells model, Harry simply encounters these creatures, then quickly moves on to the next one. A trip into a dark forest lasts only a few minutes, before Harry simply wanders out of it again, rather than having to battle through it. The one exception is the magic mirror, which makes Harry face the death of his parents. The ending is slightly confused, and anticlimactic after what has gone before. The final speech, in which school rules are twisted up down and sideways just so Harrys house of Gryffendor can be awarded the school prize seems unnecessary. He has already won much greater prizes.

Adrian Horrocks

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