Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone (United States/United Kingdom, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Harry Potter phenomenon - and make no mistake, it is a phenomenon - is unlike anything we have seen in recent history. Rather than being the result of clever marketing and hucksterism, Harry Potter's popularity began at the grass roots level. And, what's more, this craze is not derived from a movie, video game, or television series, but from one of the oldest forms of mass-market entertainment: a book. Of course, now that the cat's out of the bag, the marketing has begun in earnest. There are Harry Potter lunch boxes, trading cards, toys, wrapping paper, etc. But it's important to remember that these things followed the phenomenon, they didn't drive it.

Much has been written about why Harry Potter is so popular with readers of all ages. While this analysis is fine, all you really have to do is read a few chapters of any of the Harry Potter novels, and you'll understand the appeal. Author J.K. Rowling has developed an intensely likable hero and put his adventures on paper with a free-and-easy style that mixes high adventure with light drama and low-key comedy. The books manage to walk the literary tightrope of never taking themselves too seriously while avoiding the easy pitfall of self-parody. That tone is what Chris Columbus' motion picture adaptation strives for, and, for the most part, achieves.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is unquestionably a member of the fantasy genre. However, while the majority of fantasy novels strike a tone that straddles the somber and the ominous, Rowling keeps it light, falling somewhere between that of David Eddings' Belgariad and Piers Anthony's A Spell for Chameleon. Harry Potter's most apparent antecedents are J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (which is written in a much lighter style than The Lord of the Rings), C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, and Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain. Like Harry Potter, those books find their most enthusiastic supporters in the bracket of ages 10 to 15, but feature enough character development, plot, and thematic content to attract an older audience. Yet, in large part because of its contemporary setting, Harry Potter's popularity has greatly outstripped those of its predecessors. And to call the Harry Potter novels "children's books" is to underestimate them. The only people who apparently do not like the stories are the religious fundamentalists, some of whom are leveling the same charges at Harry Potter fans that they accused Dungeons and Dragons players of 20 years ago.

After the Harry Potter novels became a huge international success, the one-word question regarding the movie adaptation became "when?" not "if?" Initial reports indicated that Steven Spielberg would direct Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, but, for whatever reason (and there are about a hundred rumors flying around), Spielberg backed out, leaving the door open for Chris Columbus, the crowd-pleasing filmmaker who was behind the camera for Mrs. Doubtfire and Home Alone (as well as, lest we forget, Stepmom and Bicentennial Man). At the outset, Columbus and Harry might not seem to be the best match, but, with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Columbus proves at least one thing - he can make the story accessible both to those who are familiar with the source (probably the majority of those who will see the film, at least in its theatrical release) and those who aren't. Columbus will also direct the second Harry Potter movie; current rumor claims that Spielberg wants to do the third.

The movie opens in modern-day England, on the small rural lane of Pivet Drive, where 11-year old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) dwells with his aunt, uncle, and cousin. Harry has lived with his mother's sister's family since shortly after birth, when his parents were murdered by the evil wizard Voldemort. Voldemort tried to kill the infant Harry as well, but failed, leaving the boy undamaged except for a scar on his forehead. After that incident, Voldemort vanished, never to be heard from again. Now, on his birthday, Harry is visited by the imposing Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), who has come to bring Harry to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he will study to fulfill his true calling as a wizard. After a trip with Hagrid to buy supplies (including a wand, a snowy owl, and a cauldron), Harry arrives at Hogwarts. There, he meets classmates who will become close friends, such as red-haired Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and bossy Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and antagonists, such as the arrogant Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). Then there's the headmaster of Hogwarts, the venerable wizard Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris), and his staff - Professor Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), who teaches Transfiguration; Professor Quirrell (Ian Hart), whose course is Defense Against the Dark Arts; Professor Flitwick (Warwick Davis), who teaches Charms; and Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), master of Potions. For Harry, however, there's more to attending Hogwarts than studying, as he begins to suspect one of the teachers of being in league with a dark force lurking in the forest.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a rigorously faithful adaptation of the novel. With the exception of occasional details, short scenes, and a poltergeist, everything in the book is in the movie. And at least 75% of Steve Kloves' dialogue is lifted directly from the text. For Harry Potter fans looking to see how their favorite scene appears on screen, this is a boon. But there's something almost workmanlike about Columbus' approach to the project. Movies and books are different media, and the best approach for adapting the latter into the former is not always an unvarnished translation. Columbus doesn't use any imagination beyond that which J.K. Rowling previously supplied for her book. There's no denying that the film is diverting, but it isn't inspired. One of the most delicious aspects of reading the books is absorbing all of Rowling's offhand comments. Columbus and Kloves' straightforward approach fails to find a creative way of incorporating these.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone delivers as promised - a herd of colorful characters, fast-paced, inventive adventure, liberal doses of comedy, and even a little pathos. The film runs 2 1/2 hours, but doesn't seem that long, and all but the youngest children should be able to sit through it without becoming restless. The movie also has the virtue of not talking down to its viewers, meaning that adults won't be uncomfortable viewing this film, even if they aren't chaperoning offspring. Just as the Harry Potter books have reached a wide audience, so too does the movie appeal to audience members of all ages.

The film has its share of standout sequences. The first is a battle featuring Harry, Ron, and Hermione against a big, ugly troll. The second is Harry's Quidditch debut. And the third is the final showdown. From a visual standpoint, the film has its moments, but is far from overwhelming. Hogwarts looks suitably impressive, the troll and goblins are convincing, and most of the magic is nicely represented, but the flying sequences are disappointing, not looking a lot better than when Christopher Reeve donned his cape for Superman. One would think that in this era of digital special effects, the filmmakers could have done a little better masking the blue screen work.

The three pint-sized leads - Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson - are all unknowns. Radcliffe, who appeared in The Tailor of Panama, is the only one with previous experience. The decision to cast unfamiliar faces is a good one, since none of the actors bring baggage with them. What they lack in polish, they make up for in earnestness. Presumably, they will become more accomplished as the series advances. On the other hand, most of the adults are played by recognizable performers - Richard Harris as Dumbledore, Alan Rickman as the serpentine Snape, Maggie Smith as McGonagall, and Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid. There are also several big names in small roles - John Cleese as a nearly-headless ghost, John Hurt as a wand salesman, and Julie Walters as Ron's mother.

J.K. Rowling has given her full support to the finished project, gushing how closely it meets her vision of what the characters and their world should look like. Fans of the book will likely love or hate the movie based on how closely things match their preconceived notions. Viewed exclusively as a piece of cinema - something extraordinarily difficult to do with this property - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone stands out as a solid piece of entertainment. The film's spell may not be as potent as that of the book, but there's still some magic in what Columbus and his crew have wrought.

Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone (United States/United Kingdom, 2001)

Run Time: 2:32
U.S. Release Date: 2001-11-16
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1