Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Harry Potter Film Rewatch Project: #1 Harry Potter and the Pains of Aging

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Spoilers for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Hello everybody, and welcome to the first installment of the Harry Potter Film Rewatch Project! It’s here that I will be revisiting the eight Harry Potter films, watching each one and giving you my thoughts as we go along. Sort of like textual live streaming I guess, just with slightly better editing. I even might decide to do Fantastic Beasts at the end of all this. Oh, and yes, I will be referring to this as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The Philosopher’s Stone is an item from actual myth and legend with a rich history and has interesting links to real world inspirations. A Sorcerer’s Stone is nonsense a marketing team came up with because they were convinced Americans were too stupid to know what a philosopher was.

Also, I will be doing my best to talk about these movies purely on the basis of how they hold up on their own. I will try to keep both my likes and my issues with the books out of this, and will only really bring them up when the movies deviate significantly from them, for good or for ill. For book analysis, please check out Claire’s wonderful reread project.

So why am I bothering with this project? Well, for a few reasons. Anyone born in the mid 90’s or more recently might have difficulty believing this, but there was a time when the fantasy genre was dead in Hollywood. Well, I say dead, there were actually quite a few fantasy films in many subgenres, but for the most part the 80’s and 90’s were a wasteland of would be Star Wars clones. Before the 70’s, fantasy was almost entirely the domain of two names-Disney and Harryhausen. And after the 70’s, studios were desperate to make blockbusters in any way they could. But there wouldn’t be a fantasy blockbuster until the early aughts (well, one could make an argument for The Crow being the first, but that’s an argument for another article) when Peter Jackson glued hair to Elijah Wood’s feet and Chris Columbus scarred a young British boy.

In addition to just flat out being the first fantasy blockbuster (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came out a month before Fellowship of the Ring) the impact the movies have had on fandom is immense as well. The Alan Rickman version of Snape and the Helena Bonham Carter version of Bellatrix have almost completely overshadowed the book versions in fanfiction and fanart, the idea of wands looking different is largely from the films, and aesthetically everything borrows from the films. You don’t really have to look any further than the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to realize the impact of the films’ visual style. The movies may not be perfect, and a lot of fans may have problems with them, but even without factoring for Fantastic Beasts they are still relevant. 

And, just on a personal level, these films are very dear to me, as I managed to see all but one of them in theaters with my father, being some of the few entirely positive memories I have of interactions with him.

So, with that addressed, let’s get to the actual film, shall we?

Rewatching Now

Alright, so you probably know the plot of the first Harry Potter book/movie at this point. And if you don’t, well…just keep reading, and we’ll cover everything eventually.

The film opens with the arrival of Albus Dumbledore

No, neither of these guys

to a British suburb in the middle of the night, where he is met by a shape-shifting cat witch…

This’ll go a lot faster if you stop interrupting

…and they talk about the backstory for a little bit until a giant man on a flying motorcycle arrives carrying a baby. Said baby is the titular Harry Potter, fresh from the site of his wrecked home, where wizard Hitler killed his parents and then got killed by Harry in turn. The adults briefly discuss Harry’s scar, then decide to just sort of …leave Harry on the doorstep, like an Amazon package. Did I mention that this scene is set on Halloween night, so they left a baby outside for several hours in October in Britain! Forget anything else, you’re lucky the kid didn’t die of pneumonia! You couldn’t have worked out a way to deliver him during the day? Or, you know, woken up the people you were giving him to?

This is as good a time as any to address something about the first two (and to a lesser extent the third) Harry Potter books/movies. It may be hard to remember with how adult the later books got, but these first few are very much children’s books—The Hobbit in Low Fantasy garb. And the end result is a lot of stuff that doesn’t really make logical sense. For the most part we’re just going to ignore these moments from here on, or at least call them out. It doesn’t excuse everything wonky about this movie, but it covers some bases.

Harry grows up, raised by his horrible, emotionally abusive aunt and uncle, the Dursleys. *Takes a deep breath*. We’re going to…move past this. The movies barely feature the Dursleys (I’m pretty sure this is the movie where they get the most screen time) and never go into details beyond him sleeping under the stairs and them not liking him at all. This is an article about the movies, not the books, and for better or for worse this discussion is not relevant to the movies.

Eventually a series of letters, sent by a very persistent mystery person, start arriving at the Dursley home, all addressed to Harry. This is largely shown by brief montage in the film, as compared to the many eccentric delivery methods in the book and the attempts the uncle goes to to try and prevent them. Either way, the final culmination is when a massive storm of letters comes through the chimney, driving them out of the house.

Insert make it rain joke here

This leads the Dursleys taking Harry to a small shack on a tiny island out in the sea (not clear if they’re in the Atlantic or the Channel) on the day before his birthday. And, right as the clock (well, watch) strikes midnight, the giant man arrives, introducing himself as Rubeus Hagrid. He is the groundskeeper at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, come to deliver the news that Harry is the Special. It should be noted that Robbie Coltrane and Maggie Smith are both perfect for their roles and the only reason I didn’t mention them in the introduction was that, unlike Snape and Bellatrix, they are basically the actual book characters come to life. Hagrid tells him about both Harry’s nature as a wizard and about the death of his parents, something the Dursleys had never bothered to explain.

The next day Harry and Hagrid go to London…somehow. I’m still not clear how Harry and the Dursleys got to the island in the first place, since the establishing shot didn’t show a boat anywhere, and it’s not established how Hagrid got there either. In the book it’s implied that he flew there on his umbrella Mary Poppins style…

…and then shown that he uses magic on the Dursleys’ boat to get back with Harry (now that I think about it, they never establish how the Dursleys got off the island in the book). Either way they get there and Hagrid takes Harry to the wizarding shopping district, where he’s mobbed by fans among whom is a nervous young man named Professor Quirrell. We get to see Diagon Alley, which is a strange and unusual, definitely magical, place. In the second book, Harry notes that the Weasley family house, the Burrow, doesn’t look structurally sound, but that since it’s the home of wizards it doesn’t need to be because, well, magic. It’s pretty clear that whoever designed the set for this place took that idea and ran with it to…mixed effect. Everything definitely looks not of this world and curious, but it also adds the problem that since everything juts forward more than usual, the place looks a bit cramped and narrow, and the crowds look much more unpleasant to deal with.

Hagrid proceeds to take Harry shopping, after a quick stop at the bank to get money for Harry and a small, grubby package for Dumbledore. In the book we linger in two more shops, with a textual equivalent to a montage to get through the other shops between them. Here we go straight for the wand, with Hagrid depositing Harry at the store, then going off for a sec. John Hurt arrives as Ollivander, getting Harry a wand he’s suited for and revealing that Harry’s wand is the twin of Wizard Hitler aka Voldemort, with both being powered by feathers from the same phoenix. It’s lucky that they kept this, given what happened in later books that came out after this movie. That’s going to come up a lot, the movies being hurt by Warner Bros not waiting for the series to end before starting to adapt it.

Once he has his wand, Hagrid gifts Harry with a female snowy owl that he names Hedwig, and they set off for the train station. And oh boy…we’re about to get two plot holes I’m not willing to just handwave away. Firstly we have the fact that Harry and Hagrid go straight to the train station the day the train to Hogwarts is supposed to be leaving. Keep in mind that Harry’s birthday is at the end of July, and the train to Hogwarts leaves in September. What were Harry and Hagrid doing during for all of August? Why was Hagrid walking around with the Philosopher’s Stone (the package he grabbed) for a full month? Is that why the defenses on the Stone make no sense, because they only had a few hours to prepare before the students arrived?

Also, on a less egregious note, Hagrid manages to disapparate (teleport) away from Harry when the kid isn’t looking. On the one hand, this shouldn’t be possible since that’s not a skill witches and wizards are allowed to start learning until they’re 16 and actually use until they’re 17, and Hagrid was expelled from Hogwarts when he was 13. On the other hand, Hagrid did that in the book too, so it’s at least not a film original plot hole.

Harry does his best to find the train, but since the ticket Hagrid gave him says to go to Platform 9 3/4, he has trouble doing so. Eventually he finds a wizarding family, the Weasleys, who help him out and get him onto the train. It’s on the train that he meets the other two main characters, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. And now that we have several child actors together, I might as well bring this up now: the bad child acting, oh hell the bad child acting! Look movie, I get it. You were operating under the knowledge that there would be seven books, and therefore at least seven movies. The books weren’t all out yet, and you wanted some continuity of acting, so you hired actual kids for your leads. That was probably for the best…well, no, the best thing to do would have been to make animated movies, therefore bypassing both the need for child actors and the need for bad CGI to do the magic stuff (we’ll get to that later).

And I know that they get better with time. But that doesn’t make this movie any easier to sit through! So much bad child acting! Unfortunately, I have to say that the worst is probably Emma Watson, who just over emphasizes certain words and has to visibly take time to remember her lines. The best is honestly Tom Felton, which does result in the odd feeling of wanting more Malfoy scenes.

Speaking of Malfoy, we do meet the little turd when we reach Hogwarts (after a breathtaking shot of the castle from the nearby lake). He doesn’t do much aside from inadvertently alienating Harry and purposefully insulting Ron, being interrupted by the arrival of Professor McGonagall. She takes the new students to the cafeteria, where they are all judged in front of their peers as a talking hat decides who their friends will be for the rest of their lives. Again, children’s story. I think that makes up for some of this, right?

After the sorting and food, the kids go off to bed to prepare for a busy day of classes. We get a funny scene in which McGonagall shows off her ability to change into a cat at will, though the punchline is a bit excessively telegraphed. This is followed off by Snape’s first speaking scene, in which he quotes the book and mocks Harry. Nothing important really happens in the classes beyond establishing the two professors’s personalities, so lets just move on. The next scene is breakfast, where mail gets delivered. We see Seamus Finnegan performing magic that is very clearly not how Harry Potter spells work (he’s saying a small poem), and apparently Ron has a newspaper subscription, which feels out of character, but okay.

I mention this scene because this is when Harry learns that the vault Hagrid took the Philosop- I mean ‘the mysterious package’ from was broken into later that day which…okay, let’s be generous and say that this scene is set in the third day at Hogwarts. That means it’s September third. The robbery happened on August first! Why would you report on a robbery that happened a month ago? Did the goblins just not tell anyone for a month? In the book it made a little sense because the newspaper was in Hagrid’s hut and nobody said it was a new paper. This is just weird.

Well, off to the grounds and flying lessons! Neville Longbottom (yes that’s really his name) manages to hurt himself when he loses control of his broom. Now, in the book, all that happens is that his broom goes up a few feet and then he falls. Here, the broom seems to have a mind of it’s own-a homicidal mind that wants Neville killed. Quite the severe escalation of shenanigans there. Neville gets taken to the Hospital Wing, and once the teacher takes him Malfoy finds a thing that Neville dropped. He decides he wants to hide it, and Harry chases after him on a broom. Not only does he manage to retrieve Neville’s property, but this feat of nearly getting himself killed is considered impressive enough to get him immediately put on the Gryffindor Quidditch team. The next scenes are Harry telling others about this and him learning the insane rules of the insane sport, so I won’t go into details.

What I will discuss is the circumstances in which they encounter Fluffy, the cerberus. Ron, Harry, and Hermione are going up a flight of stairs, but it moves on them halfway through, pivoting to put the top in a different place. They decide to go ahead and enter the new location, instead of just heading back down the stairs, and encounter the caretaker’s cat Mrs. Norris, whom they run away from in a panic and hide in a locked room. A locked room where they encounter a giant three headed dog, who attacks and promptly drives them away. The problem here is that in the book, they were tricked into being out at night, after curfew, and so had an actual reason to run away. Here, they really don’t since it’s the middle of the day and the stairs moved, and so we’re left with the same events but without the motivation.

We fast forward to charms class, where they’re learning to levitate items. Hermione attempts to teach Ron how to do it properly, but she’s pushy and he’s immature so it ends badly. Ron and Harry head off to dinner, where they learn Hermione has locked herself in the bathroom and has been crying for hours. The feast is interrupted by Quirrell running in and shouting about a troll (that’s where the meme of ‘Troll in the dungeon! Thought you ought to know’ comes from). The students are sent back to their common rooms (even though two of the Houses have their common rooms in the dungeons), but Ron and Harry manage to come across the troll and see it enter the girls’ bathroom. And since there’s apparently only one girls’ bathroom in the school, they immediately know this is the one with Hermione in it and charge it, managing to incapacitate the troll and save the day, thereby becoming best friends and making their duo a trio.

The next scene is the Quidditch game, in which someone jinxes Harry’s broom (a form of magic that never comes up again) and he loses control and almost dies for a few minutes. But more importantly (because of course Harry isn’t going to die, there are six more books worth of movies to make!) it’s time to talk about CGI. It has aged…poorly to say the least. Now, the Quidditch match isn’t the first time we’ve encountered CGI characters. Roughly half the shots of Neville’s broom trying to kill him had a CGI Neville, and obviously both Fluffy and the troll were CGI. But you could barely see CGI Neville because he was usually a good distance from the camera, and the magical creatures…well they’re magical creatures. But here, in the match, there are several CGI Quidditch players and they look bad. Even by 2001 standards they’re bad! I assuming this was done to cut cost, and that this was cheaper than putting extras on the rig they used for Daniel Radcliffe, but it has not aged well. At all.

Back to the jinxing. Hermione spotted Snape staring up at Harry without blinking, which is how you perform a jinx…but also counter-jinxes, and the three are attempting to convince Hagrid of Snape’s evil. Hagrid refuses to believe them, accidentally revealing that he knows about Fluffy and that whatever is under the cerberus is the business of Dumbledore and Nicholas Flamel. This, of course, was a horrible idea as this points the three in a specific direction to look.

Fortunately for the plot, their search is delayed by Christmas break, with Hermione going back home for the holidays. Harry, much to his surprise, gets presents, among which is his father’s old invisibility cloak. He uses it to sneak out at night and wander around the castle. First he goes to the library and finds the big book o’ nightmare fuel, then runs through the castle until he finds a magic mirror with images of his parents. He takes Ron to see it, but is surprised to learn that Ron sees a completely different image. Ron quickly grows bored with the thing, but Harry remains fascinated, visiting it again, only to be visited by Dumbledore, who proceeds to explain what the mirror is and that it will be moved soon.

Then the break ends and Hermione comes back, revealing that she has figured out who Flamel is. Namely, he is the only known maker of the Philosopher’s Stone, an item that can turn anything into pure gold and that can grant whoever has it immortality through the Elixir of Life. They immediately go to Hagrid with their new information, where he admits that the Stone is real and in Hogwarts, but that Snape is one of the teachers guarding it. Which raises some issues because, spoiler, Snape’s obstacle isn’t present in the movie! It was cut! So why mention it if you weren’t going to include it? Well, the conversation is cut by the revelation that Hagrid has procured a dragon egg, which quickly hatches.

Apparently Malfoy was spying on them though, for…reasons, and he proceeds to rat them out to Professor McGonagall, getting both them and him in detention for being out after curfew. They are sent out into the Forbidden Forest, a nearby area full of deadly creatures, to help figure out what’s been killing the unicorns in the area. For breaking curfew. That’s rough. While in the forest Harry encounters a strange and ominous creature in a cloak (I’d make a Ring Wraith joke but as previously mentioned this came out a month before Fellowship of the Ring) that’s promptly shooed away by a bad CGI centaur, who proceeds to give Harry some vague warnings and the shoos him away too.

With all of that established, Harry decides that Snape must be planning on stealing the Stone soon. They attempt to tell McGonagall, but she doesn’t believe them. Actually, I always find this scene very distracting when I watch this film. Namely because they talk to McGonagall in her classroom, which is empty except for the ghost of a teenage girl, who’s taking notes. Who is this ghost girl? When did she die? How did she die? Why is she bothering to take classes if she’s dead, is she just bored or will she be able to get a job even though she’s a ghost? Could Myrtle be taking classes if she wasn’t clinically depressed? I have so many questions about Ghost Student!

Ahem, sorry. Getting back on track. The one professor they consulted didn’t believe them, so the trio decide to take matters into their own hands. That night, they sneak out (after assaulting Neville for trying to stop them) and get past Fluffy to enter the area defending the Stone. The first thing they encounter is a plant called Devil’s Snare. It’s a mass of restricting vines that squeeze tightly around whoever falls in them. The key to escaping is sitting very still and just relaxing, because they’ll let go of you. This means that one of the traps guarding the Philosopher’s Stone is one that you can escape by literally doing nothing!

The Devil’s Snare is followed up by a room full of flying keys. You have to catch the correct key and escape all the other keys (which become homicidal because apparently everything that flies in Harry Potter is evil) to unlock the door and progress to the next room, which contains a giant chessboard. Credit to the movie characters, they actually attempt to walk across the board and skip the game. They can’t of course, but it’s the thought that counts. Also, Ron chooses to play as a knight and so gets to ride a stone horse, which makes me wonder if you’d get to climb in a mini tower if you choose to be a rook. They win the game, but in the process Ron is badly injured, so Hermione stays behind to keep him from bleeding out/get help while Harry moves on.

In the book, the chessboard is followed up by two more traps, one with a troll that had already been knocked unconscious (how were they feeding it? Did somebody have to bypass the first three traps twice a day?), and the other with a logic puzzle involving potions. The movie skips these two though, and we wind up in the final chamber, where we learn that the villain was not Snape, but Quirrell!

How could I resist?

Yes, in the time honored tradition of Scooby Doo, the villain is not the kind of creepy character who’s around a lot, but the weird quirky guy with like three scenes. He even has a disguise…for a given value of disguise. Well, he has Voldemort on his head, so that’s something. Like, literally, the back of his head is Voldemort’s face, hence the turban. He attempts to get Harry to bypass the defense for him, because it’s that mirror from earlier! Dumbledore managed to put the Stone inside it, and has also enchanted it so that the only way to get the Stone is if you don’t intend to ever use it. Harry, of course, gets the stone, but it appears in his pocket and so he’s able to lie to Quirrell. Voldemort sees through his lie however, and sicks Quirrell on him.

And here is where we get an…interesting diversion from the book. In the book, the protection Lily’s death put on Harry made him give Quirrell burns whenever he tried to touch him. In the movie, it only happens when Harry’s hands make contact with Quirrell’s flesh. Harry visibly realizes this, and responds by running forward and purposefully pressing his hands to Quirrell’s face until the guy dies! Harry Potter murders a man when he’s 11! Holy crap!

Anyway, that’s basically the end of the film. I mean, there’s some wrap up where Harry learns that Flamel had the Stone destroyed, and Dumbledore explains why Quirrell couldn’t touch Harry, and then Gryffindor wins the House Cup, a thing so dumb I completely forget it’s a plot point until the end of the movie, and he gets back on the train. The end.

Overall Thoughts

It’s not great, but it could be worse. It’s a fairly loyal adaptation, all things considered. Honestly the biggest problem is how poorly it’s aged with regards to the effects and the child acting. The child acting is bad. Of the Harry Potter films, this is one of the ones I’d be more open to seeing remade. There are other ones that need to be fixed due to poor…everything, but this one just needs to get some better effects. All in all, a fairly inoffensive experience.

Images courtesy of Warner Brothers

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