Film Review: 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' (2001)
Is there anything I can say about Harry Potter that hasn't already been said? Probably not. But I'm a long-time fan, and I wanted to offer my own personal retrospective. I already reviewed Harry Potter and the Cursed Child here, and I'd like to go over the rest of the series as well (including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). Note that this will largely be a review of the films. While I do whole-heartedly recommend the books, I've rewatched the films more recently and thus they're more fresh in my mind.
I'm a big fan, and so I won't have much to complain about for my reviews, but I'll nonetheless try to give my honest thoughts on each. That said, this isn't really meant to be an objective look at which film is the best or worst, or its overall quality. Just my general thoughts, and fun little observations I had while watching each.
Anyway, let's begin where it began...
A bit of History
Right away, it's clear that this first screen adaptation had a lot of love and polish put into it. The large budget and stellar casting make that abundantly clear. Despite that, the film is like a lot of first installments in a long-running series, in that it's not the most polished and refined entry, but it has a sort of humble charm to it all the same.
I was about twelve when I saw it for the first time, back when it came to theatres. I'd already been an avid reader of the books, and of course I was eagerly anticipating seeing this. While I did enjoy the film, for a kid it was actually quite scary in parts! Even though this is the most light-hearted of the Harry Potter films, there's still some pretty freaky stuff here; most memorably Fluffy the three-headed dog, as well as Voldemort himself when we finally see him in full. People often mention how the series eventually got so dark, and they're not wrong, but you can see traces of that darkness from the very beginning.
Right as the film opens, we get an enchanting, yet sombre scene of baby Harry being dropped off at 4 Privet Drive, to live with "the worst sort of Muggles imaginable". And they certainly do live up to their title.
This is one of the things that makes the story work so well, seeing the transition Harry goes through. In the first half of the film alone, we go from his downtrodden Muggle life, into something much greater, only from there to have him start facing truly dangerous and sinister situations.
That's the other thing that makes this work so well. The sense of mystery. As cozy and welcoming as Hogwarts is, it doesn't take long before we start to see that things are not quite right under the surface. Why exactly is the third-floor corridor off-limits? Why was there a troll in the dungeon? Why is Snape so creepy and weird?
A Section Dedicated to Hogwarts
I'm not the biggest fan of school settings in fiction. That's not to say I dislike them, necessarily. They can be done well. School stories just usually aren't the type of stories I seek out. Harry Potter is a big-time exception. Seriously, Hogwarts has got to be the coolest school ever. I know I'm not alone when I say I wish I could've had the chance to be a student at Hogwarts.
Hogwarts Castle just looks awesome, but even aside from that, it's so fascinating to see what daily life is like. Even when there's no three-headed dogs or evil deformed wizards or other scary monsters, I just love seeing the classroom lessons and the variety of neat spells, or other oddities such as the moving staircases and talking portraits. And then there's Quidditch, which has got to be the coolest sport ever. Heck, I could watch a whole movie based around Quidditch alone.
This is one area where the books excel, as you get so many more of these little worldbuilding details that didn't all make it to the films. On the other hand, though, the films did give us some amazing visuals to go with it.
The Many Faces of Harry's World
The characters are equally vidid and memorable. After the introductory scene, we cut ahead ten years to see that the Dursleys are awful people and worse guardians to poor Harry. Despite their wretchedness, however, I don't find the Dursleys to be all that loathsome. They're kind of funny in a way, and they get overshadowed by some of the far more detestable characters later on. More on that when I review Order of the Phoenix...
Opposite the Dursleys, we also meet Hagrid, who's probably my favourite character in the series. He's just so fun and lovable. It's evident right in his introduction, but he really shines throughout the film too. Oliver Wood is another great character. Too bad we didn't see more of him. Madame Hooch is great too, but sadly, her actress disappears after the first film.
While Harry and Ron meet on the Hogwarts Express and hit it off almost immediately, it's interesting to see their early interactions with Hermione, before they all become solidified as The Trio later on in the story. Harry's friendship with them is another thing he never had in his past life with the Dursleys.
Of course, even a nice boy like Harry isn't quite able to befriend everyone. He soon finds himself as the adversary of the smug Draco Malfoy, and his dim-witted lackeys, Crabbe and Goyle. And of course the ever-memorable Professor Snape, played brilliantly by Alan Rickman.
I love how the gigantic, terrifying, monstrous dog is named Fluffy, while the cuddly, adorable, harmless dog is named Fang. Did Hagrid get their names mixed up?
I always found it intriguing how Mrs Norris seems to be able to see through Harry's invisibility cloak. Also note her distinct red eyes. Speaking of weird eyes, Madame Hooch's are a bright yellow.
When Harry, Ron, and Hermione stop by the trophy cabinet after Harry is appointed seeker, you can see the name "McGonagall" on one of the trophies. In all the times I've seen this film, that's a detail I never noticed before, not until my most recent rewatch for this review. I can't remember if it was further elaborated on in the books, but regardless, it does explain McGonagall's unexpected enthusiasm for Quidditch.
The Extended Version
While it goes without saying that I recommend the film, I also recommend the extended version, if you can find a copy of it. It wasn't available on a lot of earlier releases, although the Blu-ray I purchased in 2017 features it.
Unlike the extended versions of Lord of the Rings, which added a lot of content, the new scenes in Philosopher's Stone don't really add anything substantial. For a two-and-a-half-hour film, there's only an extra 6 ½ minutes total. But the new scenes are nice touches regardless. Especially if you're familiar with the theatrical cut and you're watching the extended version for the first time ever. It’s fun to try and notice all the little added things that weren't there before.
You can check out this page on Movie-Censorship.com to see a detailed list of all the extra scenes.
All in all
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone has aged well. I really can't think of anything to dislike. It's charming, funny, scary, exciting, and a great introduction to the series. "The book is better than the movie" is how that classic saying goes, but I think these movies have a charm all of their own.
Stay tuned for my review of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets...
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