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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Chris Columbus, USA/UK, 2001

Rating: 2.9

 

 

Posted: November 21, 2001

By Laurence Station

Adapting a novel for the big screen is no easy task. The expectations of those who know the story by heart, and demand a faithful translation, run contrary to the idea of making a film that stands on its own merits.

Executives at Warner Brothers probably didn't lose too much sleep over the idea of remaining to-the-letter faithful to J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular book series. Thus, it's to the credit of director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) and screenwriter Steven Kloves (Wonder Boys, The Fabulous Baker Boys) that they have done a fairly admirable job of balancing Rowling's words with the task of creating a self-contained world that doesn't require Cliffsnotes to comprehend.

The basic setup is an intriguing one: An orphaned boy wizard, upon reaching his eleventh birthday, is accepted into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which he will attend, profits-willing, for another six movies.

The cast, a diverse blend of neophytes and veterans, works surprisingly well. The trio of young leads (Daniel Radcliffe as the titular hero, Rupert Grint as his right hand boy-wizard, Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson as the insufferably disciplined and dedicated Hermione Granger) admirably hold their own against a veritable who's who from the British stage, led by Richard Harris as head wizard Albus Dumbledore, Maggie Smith, playing the prudish, but concerned, Professor McGonagall, and Alan Rickman, who deserves singular praise for his particularly incisive portrayal of the brooding, ever suspicious, Professor Severus Snape. Rickman chews scenery as if it were a last meal.

The effects, however, while quite dazzling at times (especially the flying broomsticks and large-scale chessboard sequence), project a queer artificiality about them that dampens the fantastic hyper-reality the film's striving so earnestly to project.

Fluffy, the three-headed guardian dog, fails to evince the menace necessary to dissuade snooping students from investigating the treasure it's guarding, and the climactic showdown between young Harry and the vile wizard (He Who Shall Not Be Named) who killed the boy's parents is devoid of the dramatic tension it all but demands by coming across as more silly than genuinely sinister. Having Harry’s arch-enemy appear as a computer-generated, writhing face stuck to the back of a servile wizard’s head, barking commands like the severed Siamese twin brother Belial from the film Basket Case, completely negates any impact the showdown could have had.

Fundamentally, what holds the film back, though, is a tangible sense of threat. Not once is there any doubt Harry and his friends will escape the treacherous situations before them. What made the works of insightful and imaginative children's fantasists like Roald Dahl -- and the respective cinematic adaptations of those works -- so visceral was the underlying principle that childhood is an inherently scary place, populated by the machines, desires and oversized toys of adults, where the lone security blanket comes in the form of one’s parents.

Harry, being an orphan, has had his security blanket ripped violently away from him. Psychologically, there are serious issues to be dealt with. The terror of an 11-year-old child forced to confront the murderer of his parents should make for a dynamic, emotionally volatile scene that resonates long after it is over. Instead, Harry (perhaps knowing he's got at least six sequels left in him) trumps his greatest foe with embarrassing ease. So easily, in fact, that Harry is initially stumped as to how he even managed to do it.

There are no consequences to the boy wizard's actions, no great lessons to be learned. Consider Charlie Bucket in the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Having violated the rules of the establishment he is denied the grand prize at movie's end. Yet, despite his disappointment, and perhaps because of it, he performs an apparently simple, yet no less powerful act by returning the Everlasting Gobstopper to Mr. Wonka. Charlie is duly is rewarded for his actions, but, most importantly, has learned an invaluable lesson in the process, as has the audience.

By contrast, Harry has a canned sense of invincibility about him, something to be envied more than admired. It's not character traits, so much as smug artifice and gilded predestination that carry him through his various trials.

Lacking threat and an overarching comment on the human condition, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, while undeniably fun and entertaining, shall be remembered more for the boatloads of cash it generates, rather than any enlightening sense of wonder it sadly fumbles the opportunity to convey.

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