In this era where big budget fantasy films with $150 million budgets come out a dozen times a year, it’s hard to even imagine the climate in which the Harry Potter movies were first developed.
It was 1999. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was being toiled on half a world away in New Zealand. Pirates of the Caribbean was still just a creaky old Disneyland ride, and the only major Marvel superhero movie in theaters was Blade. Without a template to go on, Warner Bros. and the half-dozen production companies that they brought on board (primarily Heyday Films) were shooting from the hip.
Enter director Chris Columbus, who had a long resume of writing and/or directing slightly magical coming of age movies like Adventures in Babysitting and Home Alone. While he’s certainly not the most acclaimed helmer in the franchise, and some of the later, better movies in the series have retroactively tarnished his reputation among movie fans a bit, it’s important to remember that nothing like a 7+ fantasy film franchise had ever been attempted before. I think what he pulled off here makes it’s clear that he was the right person for the job.
The film opens with a mystery. In the dead of night, a witch, an impossibly ancient wizard, and a gargantuan bearded man drop a baby off at a flat in the plainest imaginable British suburb. The film cuts forward many years in time to an 11-year-old Harry Potter waking up in a closet — we can tell it’s him because his forehead bears the same lightning bolt-shaped scar that the baby did — in his adoptive parent’s house (whom we learn are the family of his aunt on his mother’s side).
The story from there should be well known to anyone reading this. Rowling was trafficking in a lot of standard tropes with the early Potter books — Harry is something of a chosen one who gets swept off from his miserable life into a world of wonder and adventure — but it’s the details that set this tale apart. Some of these come right from the books, like the excellent wizard slang and the characters with impossibly perfect names like Minerva McGonagall and Neville Longbottom, but the movie does some heavy lifting, too.
For one thing, it’s hard to imagine a better cast than the one we got. The adults in the film are a who’s-who of heavyweight British acting talent, from Richard Harris to Maggie Smith to Robbie Coltrane, et al, but it’s the core trio of children (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint) who really glue this whole enterprise together. It’s easy to imagine the whole thing collapsing if these kids hadn’t been able to pull their weight for this and seven more movies.
Another thing this movie gets right is the look and tone. It’s all gloomy overcast (Britain, after all) with swaths of blues and greens. The school castle Hogwarts is full of strange staircases and mazes of brick hallways that are populated with whimsical characters like the ghostly Nearly Headless Nick (played by John Cleese).
And underneath it all is a wonderful score by John Williams with just enough punch to be memorable, but enough subtlety to maintain the thick atmosphere that the movie clearly wants to lay down.
It’s not all roses, of course.
Columbus is not a particularly visually interesting director, and in comparison to something like Alfonso Cuaron’s The Prisoner of Azkban, it could be argued that the staging of the movie is a bit bland. It’s also — and this is more of an observation that a criticism — clearly a kid’s adventure movie, and a relatively simple one at that. The stakes feel a bit low here compared to what would come later.
But even if the plot is fairly standard, the world that it builds is not, and that is the real triumph of The Sorcerer’s Stone. This was the springboard for a whole universe of other movies, and it delivered on that almost perfectly.