A weak and boring start to what eventually becomes a worthy series of films. It's saccharine sweet, painfully trite, and terribly acted. It's painful to get through.
Film adaptations are hard. Like, really, really, hard. Harder still, when the book that’s being adapted has been read by nearly everyone who will ever see the film. There are incredible expectations and the degree of difficulty is off the charts. If you change too much from the source material you’ll anger all those diehards who know the book backwards and forwards. But, if you don’t change enough, you’ll create a boring film, one that feels like the story is being read to you in excruciating slow motion. It’s a very delicate balance, and this film sadly doesn’t strike it at all. It’s leans far too far on the super-faithful side, but still changes just enough to be annoying. It’s badly paced, the acting is absolutely atrocious, and the CGI has not held up well. About the only good thing I can say about it is that it’s Harry Potter, and that it leads to better films. Other than that it’s a complete waste of time.
The story is, as I said at the beginning, basically known by everyone already, but here goes. Harry Potter is an ordinary boy living with his aunt’s family somewhere in Surrey. His Aunt and Uncle are horrible to him, forcing him to sleep in a spider infested crawl space and generally being rotten. Occasionally things happen around him, things he can’t explain but which make his Uncle incredibly angry with him. Right before his eleventh birthday he begins to receive letters from a mysterious place called Hogwarts, letters his Uncle snatches before he can read them. After many, many letters arrive, his Uncle loses his mind and takes the family to a small shack on a tiny island during a horrible storm. At exactly midnight, the moment he turns eleven, a giant of a man breaks down the door and informs Harry that he is, in fact, a wizard. The giant, Hagrid, takes Harry to London to get him set for school and then Harry heads to Hogwarts, to learn magic. During his first year at school he learns why the entire wizarding community knows who he is, and he learns that there are good and bad wizards and that something very wrong is going on.
The story is basically ripped straight from the book, and that’s where the trouble with this film begins. There’s nothing added here, and there is stuff removed, so what we’re left with is a pale imitation of the original work. The best adaptations recognize that different mediums have different strengths and they play to what works best in film that doesn’t work in the written word. This film, on the other hand, seems to be trying, with all its might to say “Hey! Hey! Look, we have all that stuff you liked in the book! Hey!” Every scene is screaming out “Look! It’s that castle you read about! Look! It’s Quidditch! Look!” Instead of crafting new experiences and a cohesive story, it just feels like fancy set pieces meant to tick off checkmarks on some list somewhere. Hagrid, giant, check. Hogwarts Express, check. The film adds so little that you’re left focusing on the rather random and annoying minor changes, changes that seem especially pointless given how much time is wasted on things that have no bearing on the actual story.
The actors that play the main characters were eleven when the film was made. That was done intentionally, and it pays off nicely in the later films. But man, they cannot act at all. Most of them got a lot better in the subsequent films, but here it’s painful to watch. There is so much overacting going on, so many giant faces of hilariously fake wonder, so many lines chewed on and spit out. Emma Watson is particularly cringe worthy, but really they’re all bad. Luckily the grownups mostly do a much better job. Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, they all turn in wonderful performances that at least try to make up for the damage the rest of the film is doing. The one unfortunate adult is definitely Richard Harris as Dumbledore. It feels a bit mean to take issue with his acting, given that he died before the films were finished and was replaced. But man, he is just not Dumbledore at all. Far too weak, I cannot even imagine how bad he would have been in the later films. This is a bad film, but it’s a necessary evil to get to the better ones, and so we endure it.