If ever a movie were critic-proof, this is certainly it. Chris Columbus’ filmization of the first of J.K. Rowling’s series of books for “young adults,” as they’re called nowadays, has a built-in audience of millions waiting with bated breath to see their favorite characters realized on screen, and they’ll all come out–many of them again and again–to view the result. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” will do record boxoffice through the holiday season and spawn a franchise that will last for years. (The second picture is scheduled to begin shooting next week, and the script for the third is already in preparation.) Nothing any reviewer might say will change that one whit.
Most devotees will undoubtedly be pleased, at least initially, with what they get. Quite simply, Columbus’ picture is a faithful, competently executed adaptation of the original, lacking primarily the undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek wit many readers find in it. Still, those who merely want to see the words scrupulously transposed to the screen should be content. The performers–including the central trio of children (Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger) as well as a virtual platoon of British character actors–have been shrewdly chosen and costumed to match Rowling’s descriptions, the settings have been lovingly created, and the plot hews closely to the book, cramming as many of its incidents as possible within its 153-minute compass. But the film doesn’t go beyond the text in any substantial way. In other words, it does the obvious well enough, but ironically–considering the subject–it lacks the touch of magic that might have made it more than an accurate, but somewhat stale, reflection of what’s on the printed page. As a result it’s not likely to enchant those who aren’t already initiates of the Potter cult, and even those who are may come to feel, upon reflection, that it’s a far less imaginative movie than it might have been.
In this respect a comparison might be drawn to “The Wizard of Oz.” That too was a kids’ classic in book form; but the 1939 film version didn’t just doggedly replicate on screen what appeared there–it added cinematic genius to the mix, not only in terms of its casting but through music and production design as well. “Harry Potter” doesn’t match that feat. Its budget dwarfs that of “Oz,” but despite some elaborate flying sequences (which are frankly less impressive than the two-decade old ones in the original “Star Wars” trilogy), the picture never takes wing. It’s a solid but conventional piece of work, and its meandering, episodic narrative is likely to leave viewers unacquainted with the books scratching their heads and stifling a yawn by the time that its sloppy, effects-laden climax arrives. It’s going to be a smash, but it’s unlikely to reach beyond the books’ fans, and it’s dubious whether it will have a particularly long or distinguished shelf-life.
“Potter” introduces its young hero as a bespectacled waif taken in by his uncle and aunt after the death of his parents, but treated like a sort of male Cinderella by them and their greedy son. On his eleventh birthday, however, he’s whisked off to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft to take his rightful place as a wizard-in-training, thereby following in the footsteps of his sainted mother and father. Harry’s a special new student: as the only individual who’s ever escaped the wrath of the evil wizard Voldemort (Richard Bremmer), he’s a celebrity, and great things are expected of him, especially b y the school’s Merlin-like headmaster Dumbledore (Richard Harris). Sweet-natured Harry soon links up with self-possessed Hermione Granger (Watson) and red-haired, freckle-faced Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) in opposition to snooty Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), and before long the trio are engaged in an attempt to foil what they presume to be a plot of their potions instructor, Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), to secure immortality for Voldemort by stealing the sorcerer’s stone that Dumbledore has hidden. Their efforts bring them into a whole series of adventures, including broom-riding lessons, a battle with a giant Troll who looks like a dissipated cousin of Shrek as brought to life by Ray Harryhausen, periodic run-ins with a gruesome porter named Filch (David Bradley–who rather resembles The Tall Man from the “Phantasm” series), an extravagant game involving balls and broomsticks, several encounters with a three-headed dog, and, toward the close, a dangerous match of life-sized chess. (There are also unicorns and a centaur tossed in at one point, with an odd vampire twist.) The tale concludes in a confrontation between Harry and Voldemart, who’s depicted as one of those plastic heads emerging out of the goop that’s familiar from the “Hellraiser” movies, among many others. Needless to say, Harry survives the encounter.
Some of the individual sequences, especially in the first half of the picture, have a certain tweedy charm, a sort of British impishness that Columbus, though an American, manages to sustain. As the film goes on and the big special-effects moments kick in, however, the level of enchantment, not terribly strong to begin with, starts to deteriorate. In the last thirty minutes, in particular, “Harry” becomes a lumbering mess. The big chess scene, for example, is simply chaotic; one would think that the moves the pieces make on the board would be clearly defined, but instead they’re just random. (Why include something like this unless you’re going to teach youngsters about the game?) And the face-off (in more ways than one) between Harry and Voldemort is just arch and silly. By this time the picture has come to resemble “Young Sherlock Holmes,” Barry Levinson’s clumsy 1985 attempt to do an adolescent version of an Indiana Jones story–which Columbus wrote. Then, in the final ten minutes, the director falls into the sticky sentimentality that’s marred his more recent efforts: English reserve is abandoned, and American overstatement takes over.
The cast is variable, too. The kids are fine–though curiously Grint and Watson come across as more personable than Radcliffe (it’s not really the latter’s fault, though: Harry is, after all, rather a Dickensian stick)–but the olders don’t enjoy equal success. Rickman has a fine old time vamping about like some demented male version of Tallulah Bankhead, Robbie Coltrane brings a hint of bemused self-parody to Hagrid, John Hurt has a few good moments as Mr. Ollivander, and Maggie Smith is a delightfully potty McGonagall. On the other hand, Ian Hart makes a pallid Quirrell, Richard Harris merely goes through the motions as Dumbledore, and John Cleese barely registers as Nearly Headless Nick.
To add to the discomfort, the movie is smothered in a John Williams score which not only intrudes far too much but seems almost a pastiche of his own past work–a touch of “Home Alone” here, a pile of “The Empire Strikes Back” there. Unfortunately the music seems appropriate for a picture that, while well crafted, is ultimately uninspired.