Being a child actor, like being a clerk in a toy store or someone who dresses up as a cartoon animal at Disney World, is one of those professions that may strike you as a blast when you yourself are a child, but later that you come to realize you’re probably very wrong about. Because the eighties’, the era in which I grew up, had more than its share of cautionary examples of the ways the arts industry and fame can damage a young person – Gary Coleman, Tiffany and Drew Barrymore, to name a few – I soon came to realize that acting (or singing) was not the most stable of jobs for someone my age. One big disadvantage, at least in the pre-social networking era when kids’ triumphs and defeats could only be captured on home video or non-digital camera and revealed to a relatively small audience, was that the entire world got to watch you progress through life on the big screen. For example, take one of the biggest kids’ book/movie franchises of all time – and go back to the very first installment: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (author: J.K. Rowling; director: Chris Columbus) and try concentrating knowing what happened to all the cast. Once upon a time, there was a lonely British boy, and holy cannoli, doesn’t Daniel Radcliffe and co. look young!
Chris Columbus is the man responsible for helming several hit fantasies during my youth, such as “Adventures in Babysitting,” which explores what happens when your caretaker decides to overthrow all commonsense and take her charges into the Big City at night; and “Home Alone,” which portrays the challenges of surviving on your own at Christmas while your family thoughtlessly jet sets off without you. The choice of director at the time raised some eyebrows because he isn’t English, but as it turned out, he does a respectable job of capturing the magic of discovering that you yourself (Daniel and his friends, played by Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) are a wizard and get an all-expenses paid scholarship to a magic academy called Hogwarts. Not only that, but you’re the Boy Who Lived, which makes you a big deal because both your parents died fighting the forces of evil (here known as Voldemort). If you’ve spent your entire life up to this point with a stepfamily that out-steps Cinderella’s, this is welcome news indeed, even if your idiot guardian (Richard Griffiths) packs you all off to a deserted island to avoid receiving your invitation. Fortunately, this does not deter genial giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), the groundskeeper at Hogwarts, who in response to headmaster Dumbledore’s (Richard Harris) request, tracks Daniel down and helps him enroll.
Judging from how awesome back-to-school shopping for Hogwarts is (thanks to the generosity of his dead parents, Daniel acquires an owl and a wand), not to mention the train ride to school (where you can purchase jelly beans of every flavor and meet both nemesis (Tom Felton) and loyal if dorky friend (Matthew Lewis), it might be reasonable to conclude that the school itself will be even better. Well, yes and no. True, Daniel gets to join the coolest House on campus (Gryffindor) and make the broomstick flying team even though he’s a mere first year, but he also must deal with his perpetually sarcastic Potions teacher (Alan Rickman at his slyest and silkiest). Daniel and his friends make the common mistake of believing that a teacher who is tough on you actually can’t stand you (and here there may be some truth to that), so when they hear about a mysterious Sorcerer’s Stone on a forbidden floor, they jump to the conclusion that Alan intends to steal it. So off they go on an adventure to prevent this – and while it all turns out to be one of those wacky movie mix-ups, it does help Daniel and his friends learn some important life lessons – which because there are seven more installments, might need to be learned multiple times.
The author and director never answer several questions which I, for one, would still like to know the answers to: mainly, what is the hospital’s reaction when Daniel’s cousin (Harry Melling) appears in the ER with a magic pig’s tail on his posterior, and how the heck did Daniel’s mean stepfamily get off the deserted island if Robbie and Daniel take off in the only boat? But these are nitpicks because the movie faithfully captures the magic of the book. And who knew that the franchise would still be going strong over seventeen years later?