'Harry' Flies Off the Page
Friday, November 16, 2001
Bucking broomsticks, talking pictures, peripatetic staircases: Everything is just as you might expect in Chris Columbus's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Potter-philes are sure to get what they want if what they want is, in fact, an exacting version of J.K. Rowling's charming children's fantasy. If it's enchantment they are after, that's quite another matter.
Columbus knows his spells as well as Harry's brainy crony Hermione (Emma Watson), but he doesn't quite have the little wizard's knack for making magic. Although the director has lovingly re-created the wondrous world of the novel, in the process its whimsy, immediacy and warmth have gone poof.
After vowing to remain true to Rowling's vision, perhaps he and writer Steve Kloves ("Wonder Boys") were loath to tinker with the book. Or perhaps with Rowling prowling around the set, they didn't dare. In any case, the filmmakers haven't reshaped the story to suit the dramatic needs of the new medium. They didn't write a screenplay so much as cautiously string the book's chapters together like imitation pearls.
Although Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) confronts all manner of exotic demons over the movie's 2 1/2 hours, he defeats the cruelest of these within the first 90 minutes. Not even the final battle between the hero and the arch-villain, Lord Voldemort, can live up to Harry's earlier escape from his callous Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw), his bullying Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) and his bratty cousin (Harry Melling).
The family of "muggles" (Potterspeak for the magically disinclined) reluctantly took in the infant Harry after his mother and father, both wizards, were murdered by Voldemort. The demonic sorcerer tried to kill Harry, too, but succeeded only in branding a lightning-bolt-shape scar onto the tot's forehead.
Oliver Twist had it better than the world's best-loved wiz kid, who grows up sleeping in a cubbyhole under the closet, doing all the chores and enduring his relatives' verbal abuse. Petunia and Vernon are not only downright ornery, they never tell him about his true origins.
Then on Harry's 11th birthday, he learns that he is unlike any other boy in the whole wide world. Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), a gentle, very hairy giant, delivers the good news along with a letter of acceptance to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Then it's off to the Dickensian delights of London's out-of-the-way Diagon Alley, where he is fitted for a wand, and thence schlepped to Platform 9 3/4 to catch the express train for Hogwarts.
Once there, Harry hooks up with the headstrong Hermione Granger and the puckish Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), fellow first-year students who join the hero's various escapades. The chief of these, and sadly the dullest, is to foil the theft of the Sorcerer's Stone, a big old red totem that could treble Voldemort's waning powers.
Hagrid assures them that no one can get past the ferocious Fluffy, the slobbering three-headed dog charged with guarding the precious stone. The wizards-in-training, being as curious as Sherlock Holmes, can't help investigating the matter on their own.
After ruling out the shy, stuttering Professor Quirrell (Ian Hart), Nearly Headless Nick (John Cleese) and the rest of the otherworldlies hanging about, the children decide that the sinister Severus Snape (sneaky, sneery Alan Rickman) is the mastermind behind the plot. He might even be in league with Voldemort, who has recently been seen sipping unicorn blood in the Forbidden Forest flanking the campus.
Columbus, best known for comic treats like "Mrs. Doubtfire" and the "Home Alone" movies, cut his teeth writing heartwarming scripts for John Hughes. So it's not surprising that he doesn't know how to direct the many action sequences that form the last half of the movie. One scene blurs into the next, the changes in mood and rhythm signaled only by John Williams's maddeningly overwrought score.
If the tension starts to build, the moviemakers stand back to admire Stuart Craig's splendid, spooky sets: the magnificent medieval castle that houses Hogwarts; the grand hall lighted by a nebula of candles floating overhead; the haunted corridors attended by the silent vigil of coats of arms.
And then there are the bewitching costumes and the many special effects. The moviemakers are especially taken by the computer-generated Quidditch match (a field game played on flying broomsticks). Unfortunately, the video game-like sports event stops the movie in its tracks, and it never quite recovers its momentum.
Though the young actors are appealing, competent and well cast, they haven't enough oomph to make light work of the long journey toward the final credits. Despite the formidable supporting cast, the kids are mostly on their own as the story struggles toward its climax.
When they're on hand, however, the supporting cast of British stalwarts brings its own charisma to the setting. Many of them, like Cleese as Nick, John Hurt as the wandmaker, Julie Walters as Ron's mom vanish in a wink. Coltrane's big old bear of a guardian angel is the most memorable of the lot. However, Richard Harris and Maggie Smith have the biggest of the grown-ups' share as the wise, if imperious, headmaster and deputy headmistress of Hogwarts.
As crowded as the castle is, some characters inevitably are given short shrift. If they weren't, the movie might never have ended. Of course, as witches and wizards well know, you can't expect perfection from muggles.