Harry Potter Casts a Magic Miss-le
By the time its opening weekend is through, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone will have broken several box office records. This will be helped along by the fact that the film opened in many theaters at a minute past midnight this past Thursday. Luckily, I was one of the few (relatively speaking) to get a ticket. Should you see the film? Yes. Did I like the film? Well, that's another story altogether.
One of the reasons I dislike the Harry Potter books is that they're overly formulaic, falling back on stereotype and precedent to sort of string together a series of events that compose a story. As a writer myself, I realize it's somewhat hypocritical of me to say such a thing. All writing is partly plagiaristic; whether one borrows a name, an image, or a phrase, there's always a point when something one person writes becomes part of someone else's work. At its very core, language itself is plagiaristic. These words you're reading right now were used by someone else, countless times, perhaps in a similar context.
The reason I mention this is because you may have read in the news that J.K. Rowling has been accused of plagiarizing the work of another writer; Harry Potter, some allege, is based off of another spectacled young man named Larry Potter. That's neither here nor there, and I'm in no position to argue that point either way; I have not read the "original" material. For that reason, to simply sit on a pedestal and claim that Ms. J.K. Rowling is a plagiarist is not only foolish, but impossible, and I won't do that here.
What I will do is point out that this Hollywood retelling of the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone story recycles plenty of cliches, images and scenes from other films. This in itself doesn't make the film bad; in fact, quite the opposite is true. Most people will probably love the film because it's so vanilla. For me, that's reason to dislike it.
The film opens with a baby being left on a doorstep, his forehead marked with a magical sigil. This in itself is giving religious groups nightmares, as they're all claiming that such things are signs of evil magic and Satanism, and that Harry Potter is turning young children to witchcraft (I don't know about that, but I do know that there were two ten year old girls in sweatshirts and culottes standing in line, each of whom had a little jagged magical sigil on their foreheads. The work of Satan? Nope... just some glitter and a little glue).
But I digress. Little Harry Potter is immediately marked as being a powerful child with a great destiny ahead of him, and to protect him he's given to a family of Muggles (i.e., ordinary people). When the time comes for Harry to accept his destiny, his family refuses to let him go, but after some convincing by a friendly giant he's "allowed" to join the other budding wizards at magical college.
The remainder of the film chronicles Harry's first year at magic school, with all the usual pitfalls and a few unusual ones as well. For example, Harry immediately makes an enemy from another "House" on campus (the equivalent of a co-ed fraternity of sorts), and much of the film involves the two of them glaring and trying to get the other in trouble. There's also the array of strange and scary teachers, one of whom is actually Harry's greatest enemy in disguise. How a college full of the world's most powerful wizards couldn't figure it out is beyond me, but then Yoda couldn't foresee that Anakin would grow up to be Darth Vader either.
To reveal more about the story would be either pointless or spoiling the surprise, and you'll be able to get plenty of that from other reviews anyway. But I will take a moment to dwell on that Star Wars connection, because it's there for anyone who wants to see it.
Star Wars, of course, is not a wholly original work (nothing truly is, as I mentioned earlier); it's based on a variety of sources, from the Japanese film The Hidden Fortress to Norse mythology (one of the god Loki's nicknames is Skywalker--Loki Skywalker sound familiar?). And as Joseph Campbell has pointed out in his study of mythology, even Star Wars is just another retelling of the story of the hero; his trials and tribulations, his friends and enemies, his refusal of the call, gradual acceptance, journey into danger and eventual triumph. It's a retelling of myth, which is why it's so successful; everyone immediately understands the story, and can get on with enjoying the way in which it's told.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone accomplishes the first half of that equation, without a doubt. The comparisons to Star Wars and myth in general are all blindingly obvious: Harry's receiving his wand is analogous to Luke getting his lightsaber; Harry's most trusted mentors are old, bearded wise men, much like Obi-Wan Kenobi or even Merlin; there's even the required "call to the dark side" which eerily echoes the Emperor's tempting Luke in Return of the Jedi. Harry Potter even seems to take things to the next level, mirroring events that took place in The Phantom Menace; I won't discuss exactly what, since I hate spoiling films, but let's just say that there's a certain sequence that had me thinking I was watching the Pod Race all over again.
Certainly, the young actors in this film are much better at their jobs than young Jake Lloyd was in Episode I, and that's a good thing because they get most of the screen time. The adults in the story all drift on and off the screen more or less randomly, serving in most cases only to drop a hint to Harry and friends, and in several cases only to allow people who've read the books to say "Oh, yeah, I remember him/her from the book!" The overall scenes serve pretty much the same purpose, taking us from one event to the next without any real sense of building tension. How exciting can a movie be, after all, when it's about going to school, even if the school is a magical one?
I can certainly overlook the potty humor, which is, of course, present in spades here: snot, spittle, bad breath.... At least there wasn't any passing gas or stepping in "poodoo." I can even overlook the fact that the acting, while fairly solid, won't get anyone nominated for an Academy Award. This is, in the end, a children's film, and a fantasy at that, and it's not supposed to be Oscar material.
What I cannot overlook is the fact that the story itself, and the characters within that story, do not "come to life" for me. Certainly, the Harry Potter stories, this movie included, do contain the traditional mythic elements that have made past stories and movies so memorable and great. But in the past, such stories have also added new elements and twists, taking things to a new level or showing them in a slightly different light. Here, the story struggles to get above stereotype, and when it does manage to break free it winds up pulling itself down the other side and winds up right back where it started.
Harry's adoptive family are a bundle of stereotypes, from the weak-willed stepmother to the abusive stepfather and the fat, piggish stepbrother. Just what we needed: another fat joke. Even Hermione (her name is pronounced at least seventeen different ways in the film) becomes a stereotypical token female in her own way; in steadfastly avoiding the "weak, submissive female" stereotype, Rowling instead gives us the stereotypical smart-assed little shrew, who runs around showing up all the other boys time and again. Of course, when they make fun of her, she shows her true colors and runs off to the bathroom to cry. The boys don't cry in this film. But then, they're boys.
Fantasy (and the larger basket of Science Fiction) succeeds or fails on its ability to show us new and exciting things, fantastical things that we haven't seen before. Harry Potter fails to do that. Somehow, despite the fact that almost everyone in the film is a wizard, there's very little magic going around. Oh sure, there are plenty of little spells and broom-riding incidents and big magical creatures and cats with glowing eyes. But there's no magic.
What I mean by "magic" here is that sense of wonder, of discovering a piece of the unknown, of finding something fantastical and incredible. Harry knows he's a wizard almost from the start, and from then on in it's just a matter of wandering through hallways and bumbling along until destiny finds him and slaps him in the face. There's no sense of magic here; it's almost like the Midichlorians in The Phantom Menace. Harry is a wizard because he's a wizard, and he's going to be great because he's destined to be great, and he will be like his father because his father was great, and a wizard. There are no surprises for Harry, and because of that there are no surprises for viewers or readers of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
That said, I must reiterate that most people will probably adore this film. From a distance, I myself will readily admit that it's a good film. This is everything that the Dungeons & Dragons movie tried to be, and failed. It has good acting, an understandable storyline, and characters that you don't want to see horribly killed. But at the same time, it leaves one wanting more. It breaks no new ground, and in another month when Fellowship of the Ring is released, you'll be asking yourself the same question everyone else will be asking: