The start of any series of films is problematic at best. If you're Star Trek - you're seeking to recapture and continue some of the magic of the television show with the same cast. If you're X-Men or Batman or Spider-Man - you're capitalizing on decades of comic continuity that may make it hard historically to last beyond three or four films with the same cast. If it's Jurassic Park or Pirates Of The Caribbean or The Matrix - you don't necessarily know you are launching a series until the runaway success of your film makes it a neccesity. But certain films are launched knowing that there will be a huge audience because of the success of the books and that the story will have a definitive ending. It worked to the favor of The Lord Of The Rings by filming all three films essentially as one long process. It has worked for The Twilight Saga so far by keeping their cast consistent. In 2001, things were riding pretty high for a little book series about a wizard named Harry Potter.
It's difficult to put myself back in that 2001 timeframe. The fourth book in the series - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire had been released in the Summer of 2000 to great fanfare. Looking back, it's really the moment that Harry Potter came into view as the power player it would become. We knew there was a film on the horizon and the previous three books had been building in sales over the years despite soft release date sales. This new book sold record numbers in the first weekend of sales and the phenonemon couldn't be slowed. But within months of the release, the world changed in September of 2001. The November release of the film was a perfect escape from the reality of the times and the wizarding world of the books created a world that all ages wanted to escape to.
I'm choosing to briefly revisit the film from the perspective of now - being on the eve of the release of the final film in the series. Much like the book series, this will be the sad end to an era for a generation. The books came out from 1998 - 2007. Over that span, if you started reading them when you were eight, you were seventeen as you turned the pages on the final book. It's only a slight difference in ages for those who have invested in the film series. My own eldest child watched the first film with me when he was only five and we'll go see this last film with him on the verge of be able to drive me there. It's been a fun, wild ride.
I'm amazed watching it again at how normally it starts off. The introduction of quiet little Harry Potter on his eleventh birthday is precious. The way he's put upon by the Dursleys makes this seem like a typical young adult comedic film. That is, until Hagrid shows up to start to tell Harry's story. From this point on, the film is a thing of wonder - whether it's Hogwarts or Quidditch or three-headed dogs - the film does not disappoint with the awe that it inspires.
You can't watch it without thinking now how young the cast appears. Knowing where we will be in 2011, it's amazing to see them working together as such young actors. The three main actors - Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Ruper Grint as Ron and Emma Watson as Hermione - have a chemistry that can only be described as sheer luck. Unless you had a time machine, you could not have predicted that these actors would be able to remain together and protray these same characters for the next decade. Remember, at the time, the newest thing in the Harry Potter universe was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. They knew nothing of Horcruxes and Order of the Phoenix and Deathly Hallows.
The plot is a perfect way to start the series. We're introduced to the world of the wizards. This first film will set the tone for the films to come. And Christopher Columbus is a great choice because he understands how to work with the child actors and how to create that awe we need to feel. The first half of the film is just learning about the characters and the school.
The plot comes to life in the second half as we are thrust into a mystery to find a stone that could return Voldemort to human form. The dangers are real but not scary yet. There are simple riddles to be solved - how to get past the three-headed dog, how to use the Invisibility Cloak, and winning a chess match with life-size pieces that could kill them.
The brilliance of the Rowling novels help this film set the tone for the series. If the film had a blow-out confrontation with Voldemort like the end of Goblet of Fire - there wouldn't be many places to go after that to ratchet up the tension. But here the problems seem large but knowing what will happen by the time we get to The Order of the Phoenix - these are small troubles indeed. A young Harry Potter needs this. I love that the two worst villains are also almost laughable. His main rival appears to be Draco Malfoy. That's perfect for a young Harry Potter. He will need to learn to defeat Draco as he moves up the ladder of villains. Batman doesn't go out and beat up the Joker on his first night and Harry doesn't defeat an all powerful Voldemort right away. The Voldemort of this film is scary but he's also relatively harmless. As a head on the back of Professor Quirrell's head we don't feel nearly as threatened by him as we will in later films.
This film succeeds because it's the biggest celebration of the Harry Potter universe of all the films. Each will get increasingly darker, as is called for by the stories. The dangers will get deadlier and the consequences more dire. It's true of Lord Of The Rings too - the lightness of the first 30 minutes of that film are not regained until the end of the thrid film. This film allows the children to be children. It's a great introduction to the series and will always be known as "where it all started". It's not the weak link to the series, by any means (that might be the second film) and it's not the best (waiting to see if that's the last one in the series) but no other film spends as much time on Quidditch and the train ride to Hogwarts and the Sorting Hat and even picking out a wand in Diagon Alley. It's a celebration of magic!