Upon first impressions I never thought my future self would describe Harry Potter as ‘dark,’ ‘tragic,’ and ‘moody.’ Here, at the very beginning, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – also known as ‘The Happy One’ – pulls you into a jolly world where anything is possible. After Harry’s escape attempt from his abusive family to the magical castle in a magical land where magical mountain trolls try to decapitate little girls, it’s hard to imagine how the rest of Harry’s educational career could possibly continue without loss of sanity or limb. What will happen next? The Philosopher’s Stone is the grassy meadow of the Harry Potter series, where He Who Must Not Be Named is a smoky nightmare that gets horrible hives when hugged with too much heart.
Muggle world, meet Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). It’s best to say hello now and make your acquaintance since we’ll be on this ride together for a good, long while. Harry is the Dursleys’ unwanted nephew, kept relatively dry, reasonably safe, and just beyond the attention of social services for ten years. One day, however, the boy who grew up sleeping in a closet suddenly receives an onslaught of mysterious letters – delivered by owls. In the most dramatic scene ever written involving a shack, a rock in the ocean, a midnight storm, a shotgun, a giant, and a birthday cake, Harry learns that he is a bonafide wizard. Not only that but Britain’s premiere magical academy, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, want him as a student. So the adventure begins. After a life of neglect and bullying, Harry turns out to be a modest kid who makes friends easily. He builds strong relationships with fellow students, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), all while passing his potions exams and trying to prevent one particularly evil professor from stealing a powerful item hidden in the castle’s depths. All this and a curfew to boot! Welcome to the cheeriest, most optimistic Harry Potter of them all, and follow along as your favourite characters confirm you’ve been pronouncing their names wrong for over a decade.
Now that all eight Harry Potter movies have been released and we have cried ten thousand tears, revisiting The Philosopher’s Stone is rather nostalgic. In these early years, the Harry Potter cinematic series is still trying to find its footing, and most of the actors are completely new to the industry. This may be the number one reason why every scene is so short and the dialogue is limited to a few lines per person. The thing I notice most about The Philosopher’s Stone is that it feels very choppy. There is no flow from one scene to the next, even if the next scene takes place a few minutes later outside the room we were just in. It’s almost like the writers were trying to cram all your favourite moments from the book into the film and had no time left to smooth out the edges.
The jumpy nature allows the plot to bounce past one or two important questions. Like, why is the go-to detention a nighttime jaunt in the Forbidden Forest when Harry and his pals originally wound up in detention for being out near the Forbidden Forest at night? Hogwarts is more a rite of passage – like sending your kid to survival camp with a knife and a box of matches – rather than a first class prep school. Wizarding parents feel the need to throw their children into the ring with a three-headed dog and a mountain troll so that they can respect the wizarding world for what it is: a Fear Factor challenge with no waiver and a strong possibility of injury and/or death. It’s family tradition taken a bit too far.
While The Philosopher’s Stone may not be the best-filmed or the best-written movie of all time, it does stand on the extraordinarily tall and firm foundation of J.K. Rowling’s plot. It’s the cute, fun, amusing Harry Potter with lovable chuckles and adorable children running around on the big screen. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the light, happy installment actually designed to entertain kids rather than freak them out. By the third movie the general opinion says, “Screw it; let’s do another shot of the werewolf in the haunted house.” As a delightful prequel, The Philosopher’s Stone is a huge win at an 8/10. But as a movie on its own its score settles somewhere around a 6.5/10. I wonder what kind of story we would have gotten if Harry had said, “No thanks, Hagrid. Living with the Dursley’s isn’t all that bad.”