Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith
Director:

Chris Columbus

Writing credits: Steve Kloves
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Rated: PG for some scary moments and mild language
  (USA 2001)

When we last saw Hagrid the Giant, back in 1995, he was still wearing that same rumpled suit, still drinking, smoking, and gambling, and bemoaning his inability to lure Harry Potter's mother once again into their mutually destructive affair. Does this mean Harry's father isn't who we think it is? Is Hagrid really Harry Potter's father???

Oh.

Sorry.

Got my stories mixed up. Forgive me, kind readers, but I've been watching a CRACKER retrospective on BBC America for the last four weeks.

This review is being written on Thanksgiving Day, 2001. This year, the customary American exercise in gustatory excess, a kind of carbo-load for the now-patriotic shopping orgy to come over the next four weeks seems tempered by the ghosts of the two New York City buildings that hover over us all. What luck, then, that we have the delightful HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE to keep us warm in the movie theatres this weekend, and presumably, for many weekends to come, lo, unto a run which I predict will dwarf that of TITANIC.

I must confess to being one of perhaps five human beings in the United States of at least slightly fannish nature to have not read J.K. Rowling's publishing phenomenon, although her rags-to-publication-to-book-goddess story is the sugar plum dancing in the heads of aspiring writers everywhere. This unfamiliarity with the source material is somewhat of a blessing, for I was perhaps the only person at the showing I attended who could not predict exactly what was coming and did not have a checklist of scenes from the book.

For those of you who have been in Tajikistan for the last five years, the basic premise of the phenomenon that is the Harry Potter empire is this: Our eponymous hero (Daniel Radcliffe, whoin a few years will be ready for the remake of HAROLD AND MAUDE), the orphaned son of adept wizards (the word "witch" is never explicitly mentioned in the film, despite the claims of many Christian conservatives), is raised by his cartoonish "muggle" (non-wizard, or what fandom types call "mundane", or "those not as hip as me and thee") aunt and uncle (Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw) along with their ghastly son.

Harry, who lives under the stairs because of his aunt's unprecedented case of sibling rivalry, bears a scar on his forehead from the "incident" that killed his parents. He begins to receive increasing numbers of mysterious letters that his relatives keep from him for equally unexplained reasons, until the aforementioned Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane, yes CRACKER's Fitz himself, after seemingly changing his drink of choice from double scotches to Rogaine) literally barges in to take him off to his destiny. Said destiny is an appropriate education in wizardry at the Hogwarts school. Hogwarts is a Christian fundamentalist's nightmare; a hallucinogenic place where the stairways appear to have been designed by M.C. Escher, the people in the Renaissance-era paintings actually move, the faculty members wear black and teach courses in potions, broomstick-riding, and levitation; and meals seem to consist entirely of kid-friendly food like chicken wings, corn on the cob, and the biggest Viennese table I've seen outside of a Jewish wedding.

The mainstream critical reception to HARRY POTTER has been somewhat tepid, to which I say, "Fie on thee, ye churls!" Yes, Rowling is rapidly becoming the Oprah of fiction. Yes, a film of this book is as guaranteed to mint money as anything we've seen since the end of the dot-com IPO. Yes, director Chris Columbus is the guy that unleashed McCaulay Culkin on an unsuspecting world in HOME ALONE. Yes, he is also the guy who perpetrated the likes of STEPMOM and MRS. DOUBTFIRE on the moviegoing public. But don't hold that against him. For HARRY POTTER is two-and-a-half hours of well-crafted movie fun -- a commodity in short supply these days.

The team behind HARRY POTTER was obviously well-aware of the daunting task involved in translating such a revered work to the screen. By all accounts, Steve Kloves (the terrific screenwriter behind WONDER BOYS and THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS) has faithfully translated Rowling's work. Together with Columbus' restrained, almost reverent direction, the pair has managed to construct the fastest two-and-a-half hour kids movie ever made.

If the plot seems vaguely familiar, it's because this is yet another retelling of the King Arthur legend, last turned into a phenomenon by George Lucas in his STAR WARS empire. For Harry, like Luke Skywalker, like King Arthur, is orphaned, yet possessed of a special birthright, which must be channeled at the right time by the right mentor (Hagrid/Dumbledore, Obi-Wan, Merlin) so that he can fulfill his destiny and Fight Evil. There's a reason kids respond to this kind of story, because Arthur is never the handsome, chiseled hunk; he's always the dorkiest kid in town. He's Mark Hamill, or Nigel Terry, or in this case, Daniel Radcliffe. These neo-Arthur stories resonate with kids because most kids feel pretty dorky at the age they see these movies, and ordinary heroes like these guys give them hope of finding their own special traits.

Radcliffe is serviceable enough here, though at this early stage his character's on-screen development, he doesn't have much to do other than gape in wonder. He has an adorably sweet smile, however, that carries him through most of the picture. In some scenes, particularly those in which he sees his parents in a wish-fulfillment mirror, he shows a glimpse of emotional depth that made me think of Michael Keaton's multidimensional Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton's BATMAN -- something I hope and pray is developed in future films. Yet Radcliffe is completely overshadowed by his kid co-stars, the unfortunately-named Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley, and the spectacular Emma Watson as the ball-busting Hermione Granger.

Grint, whose name sounds like a character in the story, is Sancho Panza to Radcliffe's Don Quixote, injecting the perfect amount of levity into Harry's life. With his round face, stuffy British accent, and carroty hair, he leaps off the screen. Watson, who is going to grow up and turn into Helena Bonham-Carter, infuses Hermione with the right blend of brattiness, know-it-all brownnosing, and heart. Yet perhaps the most sneakily-scene-stealing kid performance is by Tom Felton as the villainous but deliciously-named Draco Malfoy. Felton here looks like Terence Stamp's Billy Budd with a spell cast on him to reduce him down to kid-size, and boasts a supercilious, sneering malevolence that indicates a fair amount of time on set spent under Alan Rickman's expert tutelage.

For adults, much of the fun of HARRY POTTER will be dependent on how much of an Anglophile you are. Because nearly every British character actor of the last thirty years is represented here, perfectly cast to type. Robbie Coltrane was apparently Rowling's prototype for Hagrid, and if CRACKER-heads find his big, cuddly adorableness here a bit jarring, rest assured that Hagrid also enjoys a pint or twelve at the local pub. Maggie Smith continues her string of stern schoolmarm types as Professor McGonagall. Richard Harris, the Most Dissipated Old English Actor Who Isn't Peter O'Toole, is somewhat somnambulent but looks right as Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. John Hurt has a brief but powerful appearance as wand purveyor Mr. Ollivander, in a terrific sequence that foretells a more dimensional Harry in the future. Alan Rickman is his reliably nasty self as Professor Severus Snape, who of course teaches about potions. Ian Hart has surprisingly little impact as the creepy Professor Quirrel. Zoe Wanamaker, Julie Walters, and Coltrane's fellow CRACKER alumna Geraldine Somerville show up briefly in small roles.

Yet the star of this show is not even the appropriately whimsical performances given by this Who's Who of British thespians, but the downright hallucinogenic production design. The influence of Escher, Magritte, and Saks Fifth Avenue's Christmas windows are clearly in evidence in Stuart Craig's gorgeous, almost rococo set design. Moving staircases, pumpkins and candles suspended in midair, paintings that come to life without losing any of their canvasy texture -- all a feast for the eyes.

Curiously, however, the obligatory gee-whiz-bang-action special effects don't fare quite so well, playing sometimes as merely gratuitous, other times as clunkily derivative. The much-hyped quidditch match is surprisingly weak; an obligatory scene that seems to take the place of the car chase equivalents in the STAR WARS movies. A scary scene that is supposed to encompass the Big Climax of the film (and I gather is important to the future of the franchise) plays like outtakes from THE MUMMY. Another scene seems ripped from INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. Much of the last hour plays like a high-rent version of THE GOONIES. And still, gems can be found even in the weaker parts of the film, such as a life-size, life-threatening game of "wizard chess," and "Fluffy" the ferocious three-headed dog (Mom, if you're reading this, no, this is NOT the perfect dog to keep your Rottweilers company). "Diagon Alley", the hidden part of London in which wizards purchase their supplies, is a gloriously-rendered Victorian-cum-Renaissance Faire version of New Hope, Pennsylvania, one I longed to leap into and go shopping.

If I have one complaint about HARRY POTTER, it's that it could have been just a shade darker, as I understand the books truly are. There are hints, certainly, such as when the "sorting hat" (a truly cheesy device that I understand is taken from the book) toys with placing Harry with the preening, nasty Slytherin House boys before caving in and allowing him to stay with the virtuous and down-to-earth Gryffindor crowd. No kid emerges from Harry's childhood without a certain amount of baggage, and the possibilities of a child with Harry's background and Harry's gifts offer fodder for a more multidimensional cinematic character. Still, while I can't speak for the Potter faithful, to this particular muggle, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE is the sort of high quality entertainment that only the movies can provide to get us through difficult times.

 

- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2001 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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