03 January 2011

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Now that the series is wrapping up, I promised I'd actually watch the movies through, seriously, critically, with sober adult eyes, and so here I am. I quipped that everyone tells me if I sit through five or six hours of mediocrity I can finally start watching some neat kids films, and that about sums it up the opening movement here, to be honest.

It's a tough thing to start a franchise, especially one so overly developed as Harry Potter. I have talked a lot about the joy of feeling like the world exists beyond the edges of the frame in a film, but I do believe this is an example of taking that concept a little too far. Like the post-Episode I Star Wars series, too much time is given to frivolous explorations of the world around the story. Efforts are made to incorporate it into the plot, such as the extended sequence with the bank... goblins?, wherein Hagrid seeks out a You-Know-What from You-Know-Where for You-Know-Who, but a lot of it feels like a contrivance to show off some fancy wonderful idea for magic locks or goblins that work at banks. Plus, it keeps resulting in our titular hero happening to be in the right place at the right time to see or hear or witness some thing that just happens to be crucial to the overarching mystery of the series, or the backgrounded mystery of this particular film (the film's central plot feels relegated to subplot status, which is trouble). I think Sorcerer's Stone comes off as 40% backstory, 40% world-building, and only 20% actual plot. The plot -- the mystery of the (also titular) whatsit being guarded by the cerberus and what it's for and who is plotting against everyone -- reads like an Encyclopedia Brown or Hardy Boys story to me, with a core mystery that the adults are involved with but conveniently keep allowing the children to get in the way of, only the children keep miraculously solving riddles and eliminating obstacles. At the end it's played off as the hero's-quest Chosen One thing, because Harry is So Special and all that, but along the way Harry's specialness takes a backseat to ordinary pluck (Ron beating the magic chess game; Ron defeating the troll in the ladies' room) and cleverness (Hermione learning who Flamel is; Hermione knowing how to get past the ivy monster thing). It is really, really difficult for me to look at this story and piece together what the adults are up to during all this. What are Dumbledore and McGonagall up to while all this is happening? Why is it important to pull the Stone out of storage and hide it on school grounds? Why did the magic mirror need moving when it did, and why did putting it in the room with the Stone seem like a good idea? Did Dumbledore know Harry and his Scooby Gang would show up, time and again, and if not -- what was he expecting to happen?

Further, it's odd to watch this because Harry looks and acts like such a geek, but he's a rich, popular athlete who isn't very good at his studies (he gets by, but he doesn't excel) and gets out of trouble more than once on account of his ability to play sports so well. He's the jock. Since this story is so clearly and deliberately a going-to-school analog I don't feel this line of thought is inappropriate; it's not just a lark to point it out. It's the point of the story, when you get down to it. It's a story for children about going to school and feeling out of place and finding out you are special, so the nature of that specialness is absolutely tantamount to understanding the story here, seems like -- at least for the first one (we'll see, but it feels like that theme pretty much permeates the whole thing). The point is, Harry looks and acts like the outcast nerd of the school, but almost immediately he is given a massive fortune and a star position on the school sports team. In fact, he seems all poised to befriend the school's other first-year rich, entitled jock, Draco Malfoy, and even the Sorting Hat wants to put him in Malfoy's house, Slytherin -- and house leader Snape is obsessed with protecting him, after all. It certainly seems that, if Harry hadn't bumped into the Weasleys on the terminal platform or hadn't shared a train car with Ron and Hermione along the way, it would have been Harry and Draco as best buds, and who knows how things would have gone. Anyway, Harry doesn't have to work for much apart from bearing the burden of being the wizard Luke Skywalker, and it's a funny message to kids. I guess when you're little and reading adventure stories the message of "be patient, and be yourself, and everything will come up Millhouse" isn't so bad. We'll have to see how the message evolves as the story continues, and Harry (and the audience that he is surrogate for) gets older and more mature.

As to the film itself, well... it's got hokey acting, an aggressively spot-on score, dated CG, and a script that emphasizes expository vignettes over active protagonists or cohesive backstory -- more in love with the whimsy and the mystery than the nuts and bolts of a good story. Every line feels so winking that you never forget you're watching a children's movie. It's forty-two minutes in before Harry makes a decision for himself that affects the story (stand up to Malfoy; defend Ron), and it's just a series of right-place/right-time sequences that channel everything toward a surprisingly easy climax. (The Stone just shows up in Harry's pocket because, as Dumbledore explains, it will only appear to someone who wants it but doesn't want to use it; doesn't that mean that if Harry hadn't shown up at all then Quirrell/Voldemort would have been unable to get near it? Didn't Harry's appearance endanger everything?) Harry's touch kills Quirrell because of love. It's all very easy for him.

And don't get me started on Quidditch. Actually, do, because Quidditch is an apt microcosm of the problem with the fantasy world being shown here. First, the rules are needlessly complicated; you are basically playing three separate games simultaneously on the same field, and because of the enormous amount of points for winning the third separate game, only one game matters: the Golden Snitch one, which ends the game and almost necessarily determines the winner (you'd have to have a 15-goal/150-point spread for the game not to be decided by whoever catches the Golden Snitch). Secondly, in a world of wizards and magic this game is decidedly unimaginative and literal -- in fact, it could only have been designed by a muggle, whose best idea for a game is to combine existing sports together, put them in the air, and call it good. Third, and worst of all, because first-year players (not named Harry Potter) aren't allowed to play, everything going on for the ten minutes of the Quidditch match is relegated to a bunch of extras as all the characters we've been learning about sit in the stands and gape, at best helping out by interfering when they spot cheaters; plus Potter can only hover above and make shocked and frustrated faces for most of the action, until it's time for him to have one little chase with the buzzing Snitch ball, and when he catches it, despite all the drama we just watched (involving nameless characters we do not know, extras essentially), the game is over and he wins. The rest of it doesn't matter. Like this first story, where a lot of stuff seems to be happening all at once (new school, learning spells, mysterious Stone, Snape's a jerk, Harry's mysterious fame and lineage) but we stay with characters who are ostensibly on (or meant to be on) the sidelines, and then Harry Potter, having done not much more than stand around gaping for the entire story, steps up and does one presumably impossible but surprisingly easy-to-accomplish task, and the rest of it doesn't matter. His one moment outshines everything else, the ups and downs, and the story wraps itself up. In fact, this same theme/structure is repeated one more time, in an even tinier microcosm, as Dumbledore announces the "points" earned by each house, and then proceeds to dole out new points for a last-minute task -- like the score from catching a Snitch -- that nullifies the efforts of the other players (in this case, would-be winners Slytherin) and creates a new winner.

So that's the plot for you. A bunch of stuff, some kids interfering from the sidelines, and then a hero who goes from passive info-dump recipient to one-time derring-doer and eradicates the balance of the game played beforehand. To quote a humorous webpage, Harry Potter could be summed up as "Celebrity Jock thinks rules don’t apply to him, is right."

Despite this though, the world is intriguing, and the end feels uplifting enough (it's probably that cheating music) that once it's over, it feels at first like a positive experience. I do like the idea of a wizarding school in modern England, and I'm a sucker for a good Joseph Campbell Hero's Quest, for hidden adversaries and epic adventures of good vs. evil, for prophecies and long arcs and growing up with characters. Plus, I'm promised that after the first two (or, depending on who you ask, the first three), the series picks up and gets interesting. I mean, I'll be the judge for myself on that, but the idea of the world, even in its thoughtlessly baroque, questionably paced form, is just intriguing enough that I would like to see what all the fuss is about. I'm actually looking forward to the next one, and the one after that, and seeing where the whole thing goes. So, they certainly didn't excel at winning me over, but they left me wanting more, and there's something to be said for that. It's clearly not a total failure.

I still hate Quidditch, though.

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