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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 Eric Beltmann

Based on its returns, one might be tempted to speculate whether parents have been placed under a spell, cursed to forfeit their coins in exchange for an afternoon with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Normally the box-office tally for a picture is the least interesting aspect of its release (the number of tickets sold bears no relation to the film's merit), but I think it's worth observing how Harry Potter has -- poof! -- made box-office records vanish. Snaking around lobby corners, the nation's movie lines on opening weekend were composed of children pre-enamored with this young boy who discovers he is actually a gifted wizard of honorable descent. Oddly, their fascination stemmed not from the usual crass advertising blitz, but from the weirdest literary phenomenon in recent history: the series of Potter books by J. K. Rowling is a publishing genie, conjuring gold under the rainbow and everywhere else. Most importantly, Rowling's uncomplicated fantasy has, somehow, bewitched legions of kids into reading voraciously.

Some people may find it sadly ironic that the books are now inducing a lemming-like need to watch the stories in truncated form at the local multiplex, but that would require believing that cinema is a lesser art form than literature. The written word has its virtues, of course, but so does the moving image, which can equally inspire us. Besides, isn't a young girl's enthusiasm for the movie simply an extension of her enthusiasm for literature -- a desire to extract from the film the same joy she experienced by reading the story for the first time? On some level, the kids queuing for Harry Potter are symbolic of literature's power. Their need to see the movie exists only because they located pleasure in Rowling's pages.

This makes adapting the book precarious, since fans demand narrative fidelity, but more significantly, they expect to sense the same thrill the book provided. Since I reacted to the movie precisely the same way I responded to the book, I suppose writer Steve Kloves and director Chris Columbus have produced an adequate adaptation. Still, I wish Columbus had more guts, had the nerve to advance upon Rowling.

I know the book is widely praised, but for me it was simply an appealing, negligible diversion. Like all good fantasies, the story is grounded in familiar human emotions. Orphaned as an infant, Harry, now 11, attends a supernatural school titled Hogwarts in order to learn how to harness his magical powers. Hogwarts is a conspicuous stand-in for real classrooms; the students face the same cliques, teasing, and peer pressure that young readers recognize from their own lives. Unfortunately, the allegory is often clumsy, and Rowling piles on obscure sentimentality in scenes of Harry yearning for his parents. Although I enjoyed the book's imagination, I also resented the shorthand characterizations and indolent plotting (without giving anything away, I'll say that some of the faculty at Hogwarts are not as they initially appear, and the way Rowling awkwardly contrives this twist left this reader, at least, feeling bamboozled).

Identical narrative flaws reside in the film as well, since Columbus sticks tightly and blandly to his original source. Needlessly, the film opens with a prologue establishing the characters of Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid that exists only because it's in the book. (In fact, the story would be stronger if we were introduced to the wonders of the wizard world alongside wide-eyed Harry, not before.) Columbus displays similar lethargy with the cast. Daniel Radcliffe is a fine Harry, but the supporting cast is playing dress-up, none worse than Tom Felton as the snarling bully Draco Malfoy, a tiresome stereotype lifted directly from the book. (I should mention Alan Rickman, however, because his beguiling Professor Snape always looks like he's about to say something crucial, and is easily the movie's most entrancing character.)

There are also scenes that strike me as thumpingly poor. In particular, the Quidditch sporting match feels tacked together in a technology lab, fully draining it of suspense, excitement, risk, even athletic prowess. Later scenes feature a giant troll and a three-headed killer dog, both computer-animated as if they were plastic dolls -- not for a moment did I believe that dangerous monsters were in the same room as Harry and his friends. Guilty of indulging in the latest CGI trends, which seem nifty in principle but quickly grow wearying, Harry Potter makes the same error that The Phantom Menace, The Mummy Returns, and other recent synthetic extravaganzas have made: The over-reliance on rubbery computer imagery deprives the story of all authenticity, rendering scenes inhuman and dreary. Watching these pricey fakeries is like watching buddies play impersonal video games.

Children will probably adore Columbus' faithful catalog of Rowling's highlights, but would it be as successful if its loyal admirers weren't able to plug the gaps with residue left over from reading the book? This Harry Potter may have a wand powerful enough to invoke a $90 million opening weekend, but he's also a wizard that's a bit of a quack. There really isn't any consistency or verisimilitude to this magical realm; it lacks the internal logic of an enduring fantasy like The Wizard of Oz or Return of the Jedi. Frankly, I'm skeptical that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone will supplant the book's popularity, even though it replicates nearly every page of the novel with a reverence usually reserved for religious texts.

* * *

Curious, isn't it, how so many fundamentalist Christians have been denouncing the Potter books based on religious grounds? It's easy to dismiss their apprehension, but such knee-jerk condescension requires a belief that all fundamentalists are buffoons, which is a malicious generalization I'm not willing to make.

Rather than roll my eyes -- which would be a form of arrogance brewed with intolerance -- I'll ask why so many parents consider this small wizard, who valiantly fights evil, inappropriate entertainment for their kids. Christian readers have long sought entertainment from the C. S. Lewis fantasies The Chronicles of Narnia, which inhabit a world no more real that Rowling's Potter universe. To resist this new version of escapism appears contradictory, doesn't it? The distinction, as I understand it, lies in the presentation of the occult. While Lewis clearly denounced experimentation in the occult, Rowling, perhaps inadvertently, glorifies it, or so the argument goes. If one takes the Christian faith seriously (and it certainly deserves the respect accorded other worldviews), then it's not a stretch to see why its practitioners might balk at a book that seemingly undermines their value system.

Some commentators have openly scoffed at this reasoning, as if parents who refuse to blindly jump aboard the pop-culture bandwagon deserve to be taunted. Even if we disagree with the logic regarding Harry Potter, we should still be pleased that some parents bother to question their children's entertainment. The responsible contemplation of these Christian parents ought to be applauded, not mocked. Perhaps their opinion deviates from the norm, but their studied approach still provides a useful model for all parents, who should consider deeply which books, films, music, and television programs to which they want their children exposed.

Confusing "wholesome" entertainment with "quality" entertainment, many parents assume that "quality" movies are those least likely to offend in terms of language, sex, and violence. Surely a film's content is a legitimate way to start deciding whether it is appropriate for a child, but a more pressing concern should be whether the film is intelligent and successful as art. Parents have an obligation to teach their kids what is worth their time, not just what can safely babysit them. Although the threat may be more abstract, bad entertainment is no safer than offensive entertainment. A steady diet of stupid films teaches underlying, negative lessons about art, truth, beauty, and the human spirit that are as perilous as the lessons learned from movies filled with obscene slang. Those proud Muggles who believe Harry Potter is an affront to their faith comprehend this point, at least implicitly.

Nevertheless, I don't see any alchemy -- treacherous or cinematic -- in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, but a stronger, better magic does exist elsewhere, in Pixar's glorious Monsters, Inc., which charmingly transported me in a way that neither Rowling's book nor Columbus' film did. Bursting with insightful imagination and cheerful goodwill, it reaches the sort of artistic heights that children's entertainment ought to aspire to.

Review published 12.02.2001.

For another opinion, read Rob Vaux's review.

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