With a film as hyped and anticipated as the screen adaptation of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” reviews are irrelevant. No matter what the most curmudgeonly critic may say, not only will people–frequent moviegoers and those who rarely trek out to multiplexes–turn out in droves, an especially eager section of die-hard Pot’heads are more than willing to camp out for opening day tickets. So only one question remains: is the film enjoyable enough to ensure a life in theatres beyond the first weekend crush? Yes, this “Harry” does indeed fly–just don’t expect the movie soar into the higher altitudes of imagination.
I must admit to not having read any of J.K. Rowling’s insanely popular children’s books about the 11-year-old wizard (here played by Daniel Radcliffe), but it doesn’t take a fan to see that director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves took great pains to remain as faithful as possible to their source material–after all, not for nothing does a kid flick like “Harry Potter” end up clocking in at two-and-a-half hours. Their devotion to the parent text also shows in the film’s first hour, which is almost completely concerned with character introductions and establishing its magical world. On his 11th birthday, Harry is given the chance to leave his unhappy home with unloving Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) and Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) and attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he is to hone the magical powers he inherited from his late parents, who were wizards. As Harry acquaints himself with life at Hogwarts and the people there–from fellow students such as endearingly modest Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and snooty know-it-all Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) to professors McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Dumbledore (Richard Harris), Snape (Alan Rickman), and Quirrell (Ian Hart)–the emphasis is on set pieces, not story. The students learn how to use flying broomsticks. An escaped troll chases after Hermione. The students engage in a spirited game of the wizard sport known as Quidditch. The non-narrative holding pattern is a bit frustrating but ultimately forgivable when the sequences are undeniably engaging–or, in the case of the frenetic, rugby-ish airborne circus that is the Quidditch match, quite exciting (in spite of some especially clumsy CG work).
Not that it makes too much of a difference when the titular “sorcerer’s stone” and its mythology are finally introduced. While the intrigue involving a scheme to steal the all-powerful object provides a sturdier narrative line on which to hang all the big moments, it’s still those moments that keep the film consistently watchable. Would-be emotional moments such as when Harry learns the truth behind his parents’ demise–and the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead–pale in comparison to Harry attempting to fetch the correct flying key from a wild swarm or an especially charged game of chess on a giant game board. But given Columbus’ penchant for treacle, this is a good thing; when a classically Columbus-ian, sappy line of dialogue is uttered during what had been a pretty entertaining climax, whatever forward momentum that had been built vanishes.
But the genial good will of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” never does. For a film that runs at least a good hour longer than most kid-aimed pictures, “Harry” breezes by, accomplishing exactly what it sets out to do: keep the young ‘uns (and, for the most part, adults) amused for its entire run time. That said, it is a tad dismaying (if hardly surprising) that Columbus and crew didn’t even try to be the slightest bit more ambitious. The sets, costumes, and makeup are all nicely done but not especially spectacular; making an even more negligible impression is the visual effects work, which is largely presented, quite tellingly so, in shadows or darkness (the daylight Quidditch match being the major exception–and, hence, featuring the creakiest effects in the film). The actors rarely rise above functional, particularly in the case of the impressive adult cast (standing out the most, though, is Alan Rickman’s amusingly slimy Snape). The trio of young actors at the center also just do what’s required of them, and it remains to be seen if Radcliffe can really act, for he’s quite handily upstaged by the livelier Grint and Watson, who admittedly have the flashier roles.
Now that Columbus has shown that he can make an effective Harry Potter screen translation with “Sorcerer’s Stone,” one can only hope that for the next one, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”–already locked in for a November 15, 2002 release–he comes up with an actual adaptation that dares to do more than hit all the expected notes mapped out in Rowling’s books. In the meantime, however, “Sorcerer’s Stone” is a perfectly serviceable franchise jumping-off point that should reasonably please Potter faithful and neophytes alike.
So, what do you think about the “Harry Potter” movie and all the hype surrounding it? Discuss the film in our Hate Mail section: HARRY POTTER AND THE HYPE MACHINE>>>