Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
 
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

UK/USA, 2001. Rated PG. 152 minutes.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Ian Hart, Warwick Davis, John Cleese, John Hurt, Fiona Shaw, Julie Walters, ZoŽ Wanamaker, Tom Felton, Harry Melling, David Bradley , Richard Griffiths
Writers: Steven Kloves, based on the novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
Music: John Williams
Cinematographer: John Seale
Producer: David Heyman
Director: Chris Columbus

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Grade: B-* Review by Carlo Cavagna

*This rating is directed at adults. For children and young teens, the author rates this film a B+

IIt happened about two thirds of the way through the movie, at the worst possible time--when Harry Potter was quietly skulking about Hogwart's School of Magic at night in his invisibility cloak. My girlfriend began to snore. And not just any snore. She snorted so loudly that the entire row of wide-eyed six-year olds in front of us turned to stare at her.

With one inadvertent sound, my girlfriend summed up the main difficulty with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: it's too slow and too damn long. Plodding pace aside, though, Sorcerer's Stone is an intelligent and good-hearted film fit for both kids and adults. That alone is unusual. How many kids' movies today can say that they're not idiotic and full of potty humor? Most of them are designed solely to stimulate the senses--two-hour pacifiers that probably lead to hours of later hyperactivity. Sorcerer's Stone is not that.

So what is it? Unless you've just woken from a long coma, you know it's the long-awaited screen adaptation of the first volume in J.K. Rowling's monstrously popular stories about a modern day twelve-year old who goes off to a magic academy called Hogwart's. Though Warner Brothers' publicity campaign has shoved this film down our throats, it's worth noting that Harry Potter is itself an organic phenomenon. Rowling's first book was published without much fanfare, but through word of mouth, the audience built steadily with each subsequent book. There are four volumes in the series now, and each has sold millions of copies. It's a phenomenon as big as (and perhaps bigger than) L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz, C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit.

Harry Potter's popularity caught director Chris Columbus in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. Adapting a full-length novel to the screen, even a brief one like Sorcerer's Stone, requires deviation and condensation. Think about how long it takes to read an entire book aloud, and then factor in that an unabridged film version might need to be even longer than that. However, the Harry Potter novels are such a massive pop culture phenomenon that Columbus didn't have the freedom to condense or deviate too much, or he would have been pilloried by legions of fans. But by adhering to the story, reproducing some scenes down to the last detail, he has created a lengthy film that feels mechanical.Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter

I am assured by Harry Potter fans that the movie follows the book closely. Though I am one of the few souls on this planet who has not read any Harry Potter, I did not need them to tell me that. It's patently obvious that Columbus is following a preset list of A, B, C. Sorcerer's Stone includes several scenes and characters that serve no purpose, as if we're scrolling through a series of events that are probably greatly expanded in the book (with Harry's inner thoughts and impressions particularly) just to get them in there, perhaps because they play roles in future stories, or perhaps for their own sake. Though the young protagonists have plenty of spirit, the film itself lacks it. Of course, given that Columbus' artistic vision has included Mrs. Doubtfire, Bicentennial Man, and Home Alone, perhaps we should be thankful that he and screenwriter Steve Kloves stuck to Rowling's vision instead of imposing their own. (In contrast, the trailers to Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring suggest that director Peter Jackson has brought a great deal of his personal vision to the Tolkein adaptation.)

Sorcerer's Stone is very much an introduction-to-the-universe story. First works in a series can be like that. For most of the film, the main conflict is subordinate to conveying information to the audience. The extra exposition should benefit future Harry Potter films, but some of the introductions--those of characters that did not have an important function in this film--could have been postponed to the next. The best example of this is "Nearly Headless" Nick (John Cleese), who mugs about without a point, much in the same way that another British comedian, Hugh Laurie, once described his typical role in films--he puts on a wig and shouts. Apparently "Nearly Headless" Nick is the Gryffindor House ghost (students at Hogwart's are divided into four houses), which had to be explained to me, because I had no idea who he was, even though I'm sure someone in the film explained it in passing. There were too many other things to absorb.

Sorcerer's Stone opens with a scene of a newborn Harry being left on his uncle and aunt's doorstep for unknown reasons by Hogwart's Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris), Deputy Headmistress Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), and Gamekeeper Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), a giant. Skipping forward twelve years, we have a long setup of Harry being treated unbelievably badly by his Uncle and Aunt Dursley (Fiona Shaw & Harry Helling), who keep him locked under the stairs and ignore his birthday, preferring to spoil their own overfed brat.

The exaggerated scenes at the Dursleys are easily the worst in the film. Harry is finally rescued by Hagrid, who reveals that an intricate magical universe co-exists with the modern world. He takes Harry shopping for magic supplies and finally sends him off to Hogwart's. On the way we meet Harry's eventual best friends and sidekicks, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). At the school, we have numerous scenes of Harry integrating with his classmates and attending various classes and functions, where all the professors and staff are also introduced.

While all these scenes include some fun set pieces--I particularly enjoyed the Sorting Hat (voice of Leslie Phillips) and Harry's encounter with wand vendor John Hurt--they are lengthy, rather disconnected from one another, and do not serve the main plotline of this first film. That involves a stone with the power to give infinite life. It is being protected by Hogwart's from the evil Lord Voldemort (Richard Bremmer), who has a personal grudge against Harry and is possibly working through an unknown minion at the school. Shifty Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman at his ssslithering bessst, emphasssizing all hisss esssesss) looks like a good suspect.

Once the film begins focusing on Voldemort and the stone, it hits its stride. The last hour is the best part of the film, with the trip into the Forbidden Forest and the climactic chess match standing out as highlights. That's right--a chess match! Go, nerdy brainiacs!

The kids (Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson) acquit themselves well, and should be able to carry the Potter franchise forward, even allowing for the odd unexpected difficulty--Radcliffe's voice began to change during shooting, so some of his scenes have been dubbed (I couldn't tell). Their efforts are enhanced by the supporting cast, an impressive list of all-stars who have all been asked to do what they are known for doing best. There'll be no casting against type in Harry Potter, not with the stakes so high and the risk of screwing up so great.

Columbus has definitely not screwed it up. That sounds like a backhanded compliment (and it is), but by not screwing up, Columbus has fulfilled his most important job requirement. Future installments will no doubt improve, building on the groundwork laid in Sorcerer's Stone, just as we hope that Star Wars Episodes 2 & 3 will benefit from all the exposition in dreary Episode One. Harry Potter is off to a much better start.

Review © December 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Warner Bros. Harry Potter, characters, names and related indicia are trademarks of Warner Bros. TM & © 2001.


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