Friday, October 12, 2012

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) - Start of the Phenomenon

 This is the franchise of all movie/book franchises.  You don't get more popular than this saga.

 If you say bad things about this swill, there WILL be retribution.  People will hate you and treat you like a leper.  You MUST like this.  It is the McDonalds of movies.  It is assured to out-live us all.  My opinion, your opinion, anyone's opinion is irrelevant.  The masses love it, and it shall endure.  End of story.

I now am going renegade.  This is not a fan-boy review, so if that is what you want, go elsewhere while you still have time!  I will give you my honest opinion about this film, the start of it all.  I saw "Potter" in an open frame of mind. I have not read the books, and know next to nothing about the whole Potter phenomenon. I'm also not particularly into the occult, though that can be interesting, like anything else.

What was not particularly interesting was "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." I found it derivative and unoriginal. Every Halloween cliche and image, from magic wands to flying broomsticks to trolls to centaurs, is dragged out of the closet one more time. The film is fantasy fulfillment for the pre-teen and teen set, and as such has a certain value. As art, though, it falls short.

The acting is the film's greatest weakness. The child stars clearly were picked for their looks and not any particular acting finesse. The child they picked to play Potter, Daniel Radcliffe - to the accompaniment of international hype - has all the makings of another Mark Hamill.  That is, enduring celebrity for one role, while unlikely to move forward to anything else.  Good luck with that!   He no doubt will become a legend among Potter groupies, is set for life, and will do the inevitable boatload of sequels, but shows no particular promise outside this particular role. His primary acting talent is to give a big toothy grin whenever his enemies are tormented or he triumphs at something or other (which happens with monotonous regularity). In between triumphs, he generally just looks blank, which is a welcome break from his mugging when everyone sees how wonderful he is.

The most striking thing about the other actors is how their talents are utterly squandered. Most striking is John Cleese, who floats in as a ghost and is given absolutely nothing of interest to say. Perhaps they are setting his character up for the sequels. However, since I'm reviewing this film, not them, why he is present at all is a mystery. Alan Rickman and Robbie Coltrane are the only actors that make any impact, though John Hurt is fine in a cameo. This film badly needed strong contributions from the likes of Cleese, Richard Harris and the rest, but the script hamstrings them and instead dwells on the kids. It's too bad, because a film about the adults in this make-believe world would have been an artistic, if not financial, success.

Technically, the film falls flat in a number of areas. Most annoying is the background score, which loudly intrudes at every possible instance. Harry walks down a path - and the music wells. The editing is a horror, as scenes that could have been riveting, such as the chess match toward the end, are butchered. If you are going to base the outcome of the tale on a chess match, at least show a little bit of the game! The film's makers clearly look down on their audience as people either incapable or uninterested in understanding a chess match. Instead, they substitute neutered violence by the chess pieces when they capture each other. There was no drama, just more chances for Harry and his crew to look around blankly yet again and await the inevitable triumph. The end of the film, when Potter's school rivals are emotionally crushed, was unintentionally depressing to this viewer. Can't Potter succeed without his lessers being humiliated? Not in this film.

The affected upper-class British accents make a number of the characters, particularly Harry's friend Hermione, appear unsympathetic and ridiculous at times. Expecting a 13-year-old to play a know-it-all and still remain likeable was way too much of a chore for this particular proto-actress. The entire film has a certain voyeuristic flair to it, dwelling on images of sumptuous banquets and manor halls and the like. There is great possibility for satire here, but the film misses its chances and plays it straight. I'm sure a host of comedians are salivating at the prospect won't waste the opportunity.

A bit of inventiveness might have saved the film, but that is sorely lacking. There is little original about this "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" type of tale. The hyped ball game in the middle of the film makes little sense, as Harry (of course) saves the day by singlehandedly catching a butterfly or something after half his team has been wiped out, thus nullifying the efforts of everyone else involved. Ultimately, the film is a fantasy about exciting times at boarding school, with these "magical" students going back to their homes at the end, which makes no sense at all. Harry saves the world, but what really matters is that he shows that his crew is superior to his school competitors. This sort of "For me to win you must fail" ending seems in vogue right now, in films like "Legally Blonde," and is far from attractive.

Scenes and motifs are ripped off from much better films, such as "Time Bandits," "Total Recall," "Rollerball" and "The Longest Yard." I recommend any of those films over this one.

So was there anything redeeming about the film? Certainly. The three pre-teens I saw the film with loved it, particularly the four-year-old, who has seen it three times (so far). Hard for something to seem unoriginal when you are that age - which tells you something about the natural audience for this film. Children and undemanding adults will no doubt find the constant stream of tired occult images and colorful characters riveting, but they do not make for high art.

This film, running at about three hours, will be a great babysitter when it comes out on dvd, the "ET" of its time. If you have kids, you no doubt will wind up owning it, and if possible should wait until then to have them see it. Otherwise, try to find someone else to take them to see "Potter" during its theater run. You'll be doing yourself a huge favor. Five stars out of ten for keeping the kids quiet for that long.

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