It’s coming up to the Christmas season, so it seems like as fitting a time as any to kick off watching this series of fantasy kids’ films (even if the choice wasn’t entirely under my control).
Is this really the first instalment of a much-beloved modern classic? To be fair, I could have asked the same thing after watching The Fast and the Furious, made the same year, but I came to have an affection for that series, so I may yet come to feel similarly about this one. After all, the whole thing had largely passed me by (I was 24 when this movie came out), though living in London I can watch for many uninterrupted minutes the enthusiastic people who still, even now, queue up to get their photos taken by the really rather naff half-trolley in a random brick wall labelled Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross station. Until now, the only film I had seen of the series was the very last one (half of one, really, wasn’t it?) when my wife took me along a few years back. Well, now she’s making me watch the whole thing, and on the basis of the first instalment, I wouldn’t have picked it as a world-beating crowd-pleaser.
That all said, I can hardly deny it has its pleasures. For example, there’s an occasional sense of wonder at this act of wholesale world creation, even if it’s a patchwork quilt of various eras and designs: the street scene early on presents a jumble of different eras all smashed together with a Dickens-by-way-of-Muppets Christmas Carol aesthetic; there are grand old Elizabethan houses and mediæval castles; and a Victorian train journey peopled by spiffing what-ho Famous Five public school archetypes. There’s some great character acting in the minor roles; basically the entire supporting cast is made up of venerable British acting talent, with all-too-brief walk-on parts for actors as distinguished as John Hurt, Richard Griffiths, Zoë Wanamaker and Julie Walters (those are just the ones I can recall off the top of my head). Thankfully, we get to see a bit more of the wonderful Alan Rickman, truly a master of cinematic face acting (with a major in grimacing), and the underrated Ian Hart, both teachers at the grand Hogwarts school for wizards.
The main cast, though, at least look the part, even if Robbie Coltrane’s northern accent is rather faltering at times. It’s probably not fair to criticise the kids, as it’s their first feature film after all, but then they are required to do a fair bit of running around and recounting plot points to one another in increasingly shrill voices, so they do the best they can. Rupert Grint gets all the comedy pratfalls, while Emma Watson gets the best character, the determinedly swotty and self-important Hermione. For me, it’s the rather leaden dialogue that these characters have to deliver which is the film’s chief weakness, but then I daresay it needs to be comprehensible to a wide range of viewers after all.
Truth be told, even though I watched it last night, and despite its extensive running time, I’m having trouble recalling any particular details of the thing. It passes by in a likeable haze of familiar faces, referential set design, recycled plots and (I’m guessing, given there was still plenty of minor stuff I didn’t quite understand) in-jokes for the book’s readers. It’s never precisely clear what the stakes are for the characters, but it all cleaves to familiar storytelling tropes, so knowing precisely what the philosopher’s stone of the title does, or why it matters, isn’t really so important. And at this point, we know our heroes must prevail, so the key is not what happens at the end as how it all gets there. Thankfully, despite being slightly plodding at times, it’s mostly an enjoyable journey.
Next: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Director Chris Columbus; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer John Seale; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman; Length 146 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 17 December 2013.