Chris Columbus’s approach to adapting the generationally important book series is certainly a bit broken as a film qua film. Its slavish devotion to the source text prevents narrative momentum, its stabs at whimsy and gawking wonder clashes with the buckets of story it must rush through and the uninspired special effects. And while a few scenes feel genuinely tense and inspired, plenty more are perfunctory or downright clunky.
Put another way, Harry Potter 1 feels more “adaptationy” than I recalled, like the script is a checklist of episodic plot points rather than something with its own vision.
That said, I still think the film works very well. Its successes are easy to take for granted because of how much Harry Potter we’d get in the following decade and a half that would carry them over, but we must acknowledge how much firm groundwork this film lays.
A few things that Columbus and co. get right:
- The casting. It’s an embarrassment of riches. Daniel Radcliffe is a bit stiff and closed, though not film-destroying. Nearly every other actor brings immediate, vivid life to the characters, especially the adults. We all know Richard Harris and Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman and Fiona Shaw and Richard Griffiths and Robbie Coltrane — watching them is like visiting old friends. But the pool is so deep that some legends appear for only a scene or two, and I’d nearly forgotten them: John Hurt, with the movie’s best line-readings as Ollivander? John Cleese as a kooky ghost? Warwick Davis, as a diminutive professor? All so damn good.
- The movie’s iconography and production design. A lot of it is right there in the text, but the film nails it: Harry and his scar, the fussy Dursleys, the jagged Hogwarts castle and sweeping grounds, the boarding school touchstones like uniforms and sunlit classrooms and four-poster beds, the look and sound of characters, etc.
- The score. John Williams’ work isn’t as sublime or audacious as his ’70s and ’80s best, but he captures all the regal and romantic and slightly mysterious ambitions of the story.
- The adaptational verisimilitude. Maybe this isn’t a strength, per se, but I think Columbus’s dedication to capturing both the letter and spirit of the source material in intense detail, a precedent more-or-less adopted by all 7 sequels, is a large reason the franchise was such a critical and popular success.
- The wish fulfillment and childlike warmth. Of course the director of Home Alone would know how to make a movie that kids imagined themselves in, that empowered and embraced children.
So, sure, maybe Harry Potter 1 is a bit stodgy, but it’s immensely watchable and satisfying for fans of the book series, of which I count myself. It makes you feel like you’ve been on a grand, rewarding, yearlong journey in a way that’s too rare in big-budget blockbusters.
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.