More than a decade later and after all the death and destruction that have befallen our trio of teenage thaumaturgists, it’s nice to go back and remind ourselves just how magical this wizarding world of Harry Potter really is. The first installment in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), is perhaps the best, because it is full of wonder and approaches its mysterious allurement in awe. Here, the simple supernatural lifting of a feather elicits wide eyes; soon enough the same characters will be blasting green and red flashes of deadly energy from their wands at each other as if it were nothing. They do grow up quickly.
We start on Privet Lane where the infant Harry Potter, the child of a murdered wizard and witch, is being given to be raised to his non-magical extended family on his mother’s side, the odious Dursleys, who distrust all magical people and raise the boy like a slave, sticking him underneath their staircase and hiding from him all knowledge of his parents’ deaths and the enchanted world he comes from. In the universe of Harry Potter the world is separated into magical folk and non-magical Muggles like the Dursleys and rarely do the two worlds collide; in fact most of the Muggle population is completely unaware that magic is real.
That’s the case for young Harry, played now by Daniel Radcliffe, who notices he can do amazing things, such as talk to snakes at the zoo and even make objects disappear, but cannot explain them until a curious invitation comes in the mail announcing his acceptance into the curiouser Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. When the Dursleys try to ignore the invitation, an eight-foot tall bearded wizard named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) arrives and announces that Harry will be matriculating in the fall, a statement he emphasizes by giving the Dursleys’ prize son, Dudley, a tail.
From there Harry’s education begins and a classic story structure takes place. Harry, the uninitiated, is guided by the knowledgeable Hagrid and asks all the questions we in the audience are asking in our head. Hogwarts is a school where the subjects include Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts. As the only school these kids attend from ages 11 to 18, the school must also include Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic but the film doesn’t comment on them. The students are divided into houses, membership into which is decided by an enchanted talking hat that rests upon each student’s head and announces the destination of the pupil.
The houses have worldviews and the hat divines the attributes in the student that reveal to which house he or she belongs. Gryffindor is the brave house, where Harry and his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) find themselves. The rival house is Slytherin, which is established as the evil house. Why the school would allow a house that holds a monopoly on producing wicked wizards to continue to operate is curious. It’s suggested that Slytherin’s defining trait is ambition, but it’s fairly clear that its real M.O. is misbehavior and not the charming misbehavior Harry and the Gryffindors engage in. Either way, the school staff, with few exceptions, seem preternaturally prejudiced against Slytherin, especially when it comes to the House Cup, a year-long competition in which the students win points for their house by excelling in academics or in other ways, arbitrarily assigned by the teachers.
The teachers include a stable of fine British actors, and a large percentage of the fun of all these movies is to watch the teachers steal scenes from each other. There’s the gracious Richard Harris as the Headmaster Dumbledore, Maggie Smith as the stern Professor McGonagall, Ian Hart as the skittish Professor Quirrell and a delightfully hammy Alan Rickman as the weird and suspicious Professor Snape. Rickman’s vocal cadence and delivery, the coordination of his speaking voice, the bulging of eyes and the flutter of his eyelashes are a joy. Along with Fiona Shaw and Richard Griffiths, who revel in being the cheerfully cruel Dursleys, it’s clear that the adults are having quite a bit of fun.
But the movie firmly belongs to Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, who have to carry the dramatic and narrative load as they move the story along and learn more and more about the imminent return of the evil dark wizard Voldemort (a Slytherin, naturally) who tried to enslave the wizarding world and killed Harry’s parents before being partially defeated and sent into hiding. It’s easy to pick on the three of them, whose performances can oscillate between being a bit stiff and over-exaggerated, but I think that’s only when compared to the fine performers they would become (the three would grow up in these roles, progressing as their characters do for seven more films over ten years). It’s remarkable that the filmmakers were able to find three first-timers who can so easily carry the movie. Grint has a natural comic ability, Watson seems fully committed to her goody character, and Radcliffe can generate interest in what is typically the least interesting character in an adventure story; the hero. That they grow into more confident and able actors as the series goes on is the case, but here the movie doesn’t take it easy on them, letting the adults do much of the theatrics but they are squarely relied upon to make the movie, and they come through.
Also excelling is Chris Columbus, a sure-handed director of children’s adventures. There’s a lot of information to spell out and Columbus is able to do it without making the whole thing feel rushed and still giving him enough time to develop the exciting set-pieces, like a fight with a 10-foot troll, the climactic journey through the bowels of the school and the Quidditch match, a popular wizarding sport that resembles soccer played 50 feet in the air on broomsticks. Most impressive is the art direction by Stuart Craig, who creates a universe that is unique, absolutely magical, and strong enough to be the basis for the look of seven subsequent films. Some of the movie’s great pleasures are in elements of the storytelling that are extraneous, but the detail and extra work dedicated to them contribute to the extraordinarily rich visual design. I’m thinking of intricate enchanted locks that undulate, crank and wheeze before finally giving way or the galleries of moving portraits that line the halls of the school, seen mainly in the background. Harry’s entrance into the brick-lined, old-world universe of wizardry has some of the feeling of Dorothy’s arrival at Oz or certain sections of Powell and Pressburger’s The Thief of Bagdad (1940), a joyous sense of astonishment the movie maintains for much of its running time.
Of course, the detail- and information-rich narrative lands us with a running time of 150 minutes, but it doesn’t feel bloated once it grabs our attention at the first; it doesn’t let it go until the ride is over and we anticipate the next installment. As the series progresses and the stakes are raised, the movies maintain their length but lose much of their wonder. This is perhaps a necessary loss but it robs many of them from reaching the heights of the original, a children’s film as rich, exciting and lifted by an infectious joy of discovery as any ever made in Hollywood.