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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone   C+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Chris Columbus
Writer: Steven Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling)
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Richard Harris, Tom Felton, John Cleese.

Review by Rob Vaux

Harry who? Never heard of him.

The most anticipated film of the year landed last Friday, and our Muggle-sodden lives may never be the same. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, based a series of children's books that I'm given to understand some people rather enjoy, launches a new series of films that may rival Star Wars with their popularity. I deliberately let the source material be before going to see the movie -- partly as instinctive resistance to the horrendous marketing hype but mostly in an effort judge the film on its own merits. In retrospect, that may have been a mistake. Rarely has a movie seemed more beholden to its roots, or required so much outside help to give it its spark.

Before I get to the meat of this, there's two facts about the Harry Potter phenomenon that bear mentioning:

  • Harry Potter gets millions of children excited about reading.
  • Harry Potter really infuriates a lot of fundamentalist Christians.
Each of these is an absolute good. Unqualified, unmitigated, and easily transcending any petty concerns about cinematic quality. We should all be eternally grateful to Harry and his creator J.K. Rowling for delivering such blessings unto us. Furthermore, having seen the film, I'm now very interested in reading the books. There's clearly a marvelous world at work here, with wizards and witches leading secret lives beyond the ken of unsuspecting mortals. If nothing else, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone draws instant attention to its literary progenitor, and fans of the book will be relieved to know that it presents their hero reverently and respectfully, without screwing anything up.

Unfortunately, it can't manage much more than that. Movies cannot simply regurgitate passages of writing, which this film appears to do a lot. As a visual medium, they demand different tools to convey their vision, different means of telling their stories. The best adaptations convey the truth of the original in a new form, but it requires a director with creativity and an author willing to trust him or her to act on it. Regrettably, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone has neither.

Instead, it has Chris Columbus, a competent, workmanlike filmmaker doubtless signed to do the job without rocking the boat. The good news is that he never descends to the depths of previous atrocities like Stepmom and Bicentennial Man. The bad news is that he lacks the courage to push the material to the heights it presumably deserves.

It starts almost immediately, as a pair of wizards from the magical Hogwart's academy drop a baby on the doorstep of his aunt and uncle. The baby is Harry Potter (David Radcliffe), whose magician parents were killed in battle with an evil sorcerer. The relatives are Muggles (people who don't believe in magic), and like all wicked foster parents, they abuse poor Harry terribly, locking him in a cupboard under the stairs while lavishing attention on their odious son. For 11 years, he suffers under their ministrations, until Hogwart's comes calling to reclaim him. They send an owl with an invitation to join the school, and though his aunt and uncle at first refuse to let him read it, Hogwart's will not be denied. Soon another message comes... and another... and another...

Watching the sequence lends the impression of genuine movie magic struggling to break free. Flocks of owls gathering on rooftops and letters flying through the air suggest a wondrous imagination at work, and by the time the half-giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) arrives to claim the boy for good, we're clearly in fairy-tale county. Yet Columbus delivers a thuddingly literal translation of the situation, placing the Muggle relatives in a very realistic context that jars with the scene's fantasy overtones. They're nasty characters, with Brothers Grimm sensibilities and a gleefully outlandish sense of evil, yet they're connected to a very ordinary-appearing world where such strait-laced villainy seems dreadfully out of place.

Things get better once Harry arrives at Hogwart's, a huge Gothic castle straight out of Arthurian legend. The school's professors train young wizards and witches in the magical arts with such curriculum as potion-making and broomstick flying. Harry and his new friends -- the precocious Hermione (Emma Watson) and the stalwart Weasley (Rupert Grint) -- soon learn, however, that there's more to Hogwart's than simple instruction. They find evidence of something down in the basement -- something Very Important that may have played a hand in the death of Harry's parents.

As the trio begins unraveling this mystery, Harry Potter's real strengths come out. The sets and special effects aptly realize the witty combination of English boarding school and high fantasy. The film attains a completeness of vision, presenting a universe as complex and richly developed as Star Wars or C.S. Lewis' Narnia books. The cast adds to visuals with a slew of excellent performances, from Coltrane's stouthearted giant to Alan Rickman's oozing Professor Snape. The children in particular acquit themselves well, which is surprising considering that Columbus once unleashed the horror of Macaulay Culkin upon the world. Radcliffe radiates intelligence and sympathy as Harry, while Watson and Grint play up their characters' foibles without becoming smarmy or annoying.

Yet even as these assets take flight, the film confounds them by refusing to make the most of its assets. As well-realized as the world is, it doesn't know where to stop. The details come fast and thick, often too much so for clarity. There's very little discipline in determining what's important and what's not, which leads to a sense of horrendous clutter. Fans will love the detail, but the attention interminably bogs down the pacing.

Furthermore, most of the important tidbits are handcuffed by unnecessary exposition -- often delivered by characters standing around and explaining it to us. Wonderful elements like the game of Quidditch and a talking hat which determines dorm assignments, are hampered by someone showing up and tediously describing what they do before we see them. It reaches its worst during the surprisingly dull climax where a dark conspiracy and a potentially brilliant bad guy come and go with a decided lack of energy. In order to convey what happened, the film resorts to a post-mortem soliloquy from Richard Harris' headmaster -- after everything's done. Nothing is more frustrating in a movie than watching a lot of confusing flash and sizzle, only to hear an old man stand there and tell you what you just saw. Such soliloquies are depressingly common in Harry Potter, a result, I suspect, of the production's unwillingness to alter passages from the book. Expository speeches can work fine on a printed page, but Columbus needs to focus more on showing us and less on telling us.

The results ultimately sink Harry Potter, despite some very strong elements. The film simply cannot survive on its own merits; it remains shackled to the book, forever dependent upon it for whatever magic or whimsy it gleans. Pre-established fans won't mind, of course, but the lack of courage -- the inability to play in a new medium -- haunts it from beginning to end. A little of Harry's bravery might have made this movie a classic. Instead, it becomes just another cog in a marketing franchise: handsome and shiny, but ultimately superfluous. Better luck next time, folks; judging by the ticket sales, you'll have plenty of chances to get it right.

Review published 11.19.2001.

For another opinion, read Eric Beltmann's review.

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