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Ten Years Too Late: Harry Potter & the Sorceror's Stone

A couple years ago I lost a bet with a student. She talked smack about Lost and I told her, being of the geeky persuasion (Joss Whedon acolyte, Academy Awards enthusiast, etc.), that she shouldn't knock it until she tries it. She came right back at me, knowing that I had abstained from subjecting myself to all thing Harry Potter. Thus, I told her that if she watched at least the first four episodes of Lost and wasn't hooked (obviously here was my mistake because I should have challenged her to watch eight so she got to the first big Sawyer episode, but I thought the fourth ep, "Walkabout" - the John Lock one, would be a good enough clincher) that I would watch a Harry Potter movie. You can tell by the existence of this post (and that spoilery parenthetical) who won. For upwards of several months it appeared that I was welching on the bet, and in truth, I was. You might have even called me a "bad teacher" before that was a delicious Hollywood pun. But for some reason I decided last week to finally pay my debts, so to speak, as any good Lannister would. I put the 2001 inaugural Potter flick on the top of my Nerdflix queue and now here we are.

Now usually this kind of embarrassing thing I would keep a secret, but with the franchise finally coming to a close and its final filmic installment getting some of the best reviews of the year, I suppose I felt almost obligated as a movie dweeb to just get on with it already and see them all. (You can at any point feel free to point out the irony that I, an English teacher, still don't have much if any desire to read the books. I have enough trouble enjoying fantasy as a movie genre; I can't imagine having to visualize all this nonsense with many more details shoved in as well.) My former student originally tried to get me to just skip ahead to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, because even she admitted that the first two movies are pretty dreadful to slog through. Yet I am not one to just jump into the middle of something - it just doesn't feel right, even with Wikipedia at my side. No, instead I decided to go all in, to see if I could get through all seven of the final film's predecessors in time to see the last one in theaters (and blog about each as I go through this "Ten Years Too Late" journey). Honestly, though, we'll see how much I end up caring halfway through this tiresome adventure.

Okay, let's actually talk about the first movie finally. I'm going to keep these blog posts as brief as possible, so the two-paragraph preamble will not be present in future posts. Speaking of verbose preambles (hey-oh!), I was curious as I pressed play on this debut entry to see Daniel Radcliffe in his dumb glasses but not in some kind of magical forest or castle or something. I assumed he started out as a "regular" boy, and I was right, but there was just something so off to that whole beginning chunk where he lives with his deplorable aunt, uncle, and cousin. It came off as so cartoonish (more so than even Hogwarts) that I couldn't legitimately spend any time feeling sorry for him. My first concession, however: I did, to a point, like the ridiculous overflowing of letters by the messenger owls, as it finally called bold attention to the situation's own absurdism. And yet I don't really think they were going for Sartre. Probably more Looney Tunes.

Moving on, the next bright spot, toward the end of a seemingly unending set of "back to school" sequences that had me longing for the comparatively lightning-quick origin story set forth by this year's X-Men: First Class, was when John Hurt showed up as the wand merchant. Oh how I had missed him for so long - engineer of the Prometheus, Lord Percival to John Goodman's King Ralph - and so I savored that brief cameo as well as I could before Radcliffe was on his way to CGI land, err, Hogwarts. Once there we are also saved by a distinguished actor, however, and one that will become a reasonably prominent character to boot! Alan Rickman as Professor Snape is far and away this series' greatest asset. I've never even been a huge Rickman proponent, but he's so clearly at the top of his game here, reveling in the character's quietly creepy tics while never going as maniacally overboard as so many of the other adult actors around him, including even the alternately banal and stereotypical headmaster Maggie Smith. Sorry, Reverend Mother!

The rest of the movie, after it's finally revealed almost halfway in that there's a plot besides "check out how cool it is to go to wizard school", is pretty unworthy of discussion. I did end up deciding that I like Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid and his "I shouldn't have told you that" motif, as it became solidified more as endearing rather than obnoxious as the film went on, but I also chalk this up to the fact that he's largely only competing as an actor with the three main kids, who share most of his scenes with him. Speaking of, Emma Watson is actually pretty capable as a thirteen-year-old, at least compared to Radcliffe and especially Rupert Grint. She's got some stock smug faces, but at least she can deliver her lines fluidly. Radcliffe's not quite as bad as Grint, but he's pretty one-note: basically a wide-eyed dope that's a too-oblique stand-in for the audience to be able to easily step into the everyman protagonist's shoes. But I get it; it's a kid's story, at least for now. I'm eager to see if it really does mature, or if it just follows a faithful coming-of-age formula that seems so forcefully present and unoriginal here.

I get it, though. Kind of. It's not Rupert Grint's fault that he has to keep making the same sheepish face in lieu of actual dialogue to prove that he's going to become the faithful sidekick. It may be partially director Chris Columbus's, who's specialty for years has been medium shot-soaked family-friendly mediocrity. In fact, if the stories do get better than "someone is trying to steal this magical thing so let's figure out who it is and stop them!" and as Columbus gracefully exits his role as haphazard framer of CGI photography, then I do indeed see some potential for me to get attached to this world. It pilfers from enough childhood fantasies (the food reminiscent of Hook, the escapist togetherness of Camp Nowhere, etc.) that if the characters become more three-dimensional, and the mythology behind Voldemort becomes more vivid and complex, that I might just be a convert by the end. Oh, also, more Alan Rickman please. But don't let him and Draco team up and be evil for no reason, please. Please?!

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  1. Blogger P. Arty | 1:21 PM |  

    Dang. HP1? That's a bold move. As someone who really doesn't care about this franchise, I will say HP1 is dreadful, but some of the later entries are really great.

    For example, I loved the third one, directed by Alfonso Cauron. The exposition is similar to the first movie, I believe, but Cuaron did it right.

    Also the climax in the 6th movie almost made ME climax! (HIGH FIVES BRAMMER.)

  2. Blogger Juwkey | 1:38 PM |  

    First off, very proud of you for biting the bullet and watching them all. In all honesty, I would've let you skip the first two movies because Columbus cannot direct worth a damn. Not to mention that the books and the movies don't match up a lot.

    YES. Thank God for Alan Rickman. He's perfect as Snape, but also makes the Columbus' movies bearable. Cheers to great British actors!

    Coltrane ended up reminding me more and more of the Ghost of Christmas Past from his little cameo in "Blackadder's Christmas Carol" (it's on Netflix streaming if you haven't seen it). He was good, and cast perfectly, but it wasn't a new challenge for him. Still, he's

    I hate Rupert Grint. Alright, I don't hate him, but it's so obvious that he has/had no clue what he's doing in this series. Although that dig at Radcliffe made him seem like the Bella Swan of the Harry Potter universe. A little disturbing and terrifying.

    Fact-Checker, Mood-Killer
    Maggie Smith plays Professor McGonagall - Deputy Headmistress.
    Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint were 11, 12, and 13, respectively, when the movie was filming.

    I cannot stress this enough, but everything makes more sense/incenses you more, if you've read the books.

    Keep going! You've survived the first movie, you might be able to survive the second! :D

  3. Blogger DoktorPeace | 3:41 PM |  

    I love how the picture perfectly captures the described, default facial expressions.

    And I will NOT high five you Pat, so long as children may be present.

  4. Blogger Lane | 7:46 PM |  

    I can not believe that you were not a Potter fan. The first two movies suck ass there is no way around it...I recently checked out the audio books which in my humble opinion is the way to "read" the books. I would possibly suggest this if the "book" reading part still sounds bad...I would love to pick your brain more about this but until then enjoy...

  5. Blogger chris | 11:38 AM |  

    I appreciate the encouragement, everyone, but since when do people talk about how a movie franchise's "first two movies suck" but the rest are awesome? So you watched HP1&2 and were like, "can't wait for #3 even though these sucked big time"? Is it just cuz you knew that good stuff happened in the successive books?

    Cuz I ain't never heard no one say "Alien and Aliens suck, but you should totes check out Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection."

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