Revisiting this film was easy. Revisiting it with the expressed purpose of criticism was difficult. After all, this film holds a truly special place in my heart, one that no other Potter film can really take. As a matter of fact, all of the Potter films hold a very, very special place in my heart, and it was hard to watch all of them as a critic might. Nonetheless, I did, in the hopes that they would hold up as well as I had remembered them.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone didn’t.
I hear again and again from fellow fans about how this was one of the best films in the franchise, mostly because of how “magical” it all was. Looking back, I’m not sure what they are talking about. Everything about this film feels totally fake, from the often-terrible acting to the often-atrocious writing, nothing about the film is genuine. However, this is mostly due to one person: Chris Columbus.
Simply put, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. His track record had already proved that he was an incompetent director, and this only confirmed it. Aside from dragging performances out of the kids, he doesn’t do anything interesting or artistic whatsoever. Later directors, like Cuaron and Yates, would let art director Stuart Craig go wild, really allowing him to create a universe. Here, Columbus keeps him on a tight leash, and the film looks drab and bland as a result.
Of course, there are some saving graces. The trio of child actors playing our heroes clearly improved over the long shoot, and you can tell simply by their performances which scenes were filmed earlier and which later. And of course, all of the adult actors are phenomenal, except for one. Richard Harris has gained a lot of love in the HP fandom for his portrayal of Dumbledore, but I actually think that Michael Gambon does a much better job with the role. Harris looks like he’s sleepwalking through the performance, not even trying to emote. Gambon, on the other hand, is really, truly trying to make Dumbledore feel like a human being, and not just a walking exposition-machine. But we’ll get to Gambon when he actually shows up.
The story is, of course, great. However, I credit that mostly to Rowling herself, and not screenwriter Steve Kloves. Kloves would go on to do some very interesting things with the source material in later films, but here he stuck very closely to it, as if afraid of making a mistake.
That’s really the major problem with this film. The cast and crew didn’t yet know how to make a successful Potter film, so they played it safe and refused to make any bold choices. Now, Sorcerer’s Stone is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s probably the worst Potter film. However, there’s one good thing about all of this. That means that it can only get better from here.