Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone ★★★

When it comes to modern global franchises, Harry Potter surely has to reign now as one of the main players, given over its collective seven films it's raised enough money to fund the GDP of an average sized nation. After JK Rowling's novel series about the titular boy wizard went stratospheric, appealing to both children and indeed parents alike for balancing youthful magic & a strain of dark, knowing humour, a cinematic adaptation was inevitable. So was born The Philosopher's (or Sorceror's if you're in the US, which makes far less sense) Stone, the first of the Harry Potter series which serves as the origin and introduction to our young protagonist, not to mention launching the careers of Daniel Radcliffe & Emma Watson in particular, swiftly making them household names. It went on to make almost a billion at the box office and to an extent helped birth the titanic, super-franchise blockbuster era we now live in, and you can see why. Chris Columbus serves up all the ingredients conducive to a massive success, yet along the way crafts a piece of work that gets the magical boy wonder off to a pleasant yet sluggish start.

Having never read the books, and with no intention of doing so, it's difficult to comment on how faithful Columbus & screenwriter Steve Kloves were to Rowling's story, yet by all accounts it appears they treated it close to a religious text - which perhaps accounts for the fact the ensuing film often feels as long as it might take reading a book to watch. Don't get me wrong, structurally it's perfectly sound - Radcliffe instantly makes an impression as the sweet natured Harry, and the narrative firmly focuses on his journey to Hogwarts & his freshman year attempting to live up to the legend he already is thanks to his infamous, late parents; yet perhaps *too much* is adapted that could have been snipped away to service the actual central story, which doesn't really come into play fully until at least halfway through. The script feels quite underdone at times too, only the delightful performances often saving the piece - as it really is 'spot the English thesp' here, be it Richard Harris or Maggie Smith or Julie Walters or John Hurt or Alan Rickman or you name it, if they're British & a bit iconic, they're probably in here somewhere. Yet the real plaudits deserve going Radcliffe's way, as indeed they do Rupert Grint who is joyously down to earth & comical as Ron Weasely, and Watson in particular who shows a confident, upper class skill as Hermione Grainger that belies her tender years - as a trio, they're innately watchable & very talented for their age. It's they really who pull you through the story, with Columbus frequently engorging you within Rowling's world that meshes near-Victoriana with modern day suburbia neatly & evocatively - yet the directors flaccid pacing can't quite be disguised by this, or John Williams' typically enchanting score.

It's said the Harry Potter films on the whole improve as they develop, and doubtless that's true. The Philosopher's Stone is a solid if uninspiring beginning, rescued less by Chris Columbus' workmanlike, slow approach and more some excellent performances that do good work with a relatively basic script. From a production standpoint nonetheless, it's quite sumptuous & serves up a well realised world that already feels quite rich in depth waiting to be explored, and there is no doubt children would be thoroughly drawn in by said world and the three central performers that anchor it. It's just a shame it wasn't half an hour shorter.

A. J. liked these reviews