Posted: 11/16/2001

 

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

(2001)

by Jon Bastian



The review for those muggles who’ve never played qidditch, nor eaten chocolate frogs.


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Elsewhere at Filmmonthly, a fan who’s read all of the Harry Potter books has reviewed the film. My take on it is from the perspective of someone who has studiously avoided all things Harry Potter. Before the movie, I wouldn’t have known muggle from qidditch. So, needless to say, I’m writing solely to answer one question: “Does Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone work on its own as a movie, regardless of source?”

Well — mostly yes.

Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling has gushed about what an accurate and faithful representation of the book the film is. That may be, but a novel is not a movie, and the author is not necessarily the best judge of whether their book works as a film. Perfect case in point: Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining to the extent that King later produced his own TV movie version. King’s authorized version is unwatchable, while Kubrick’s is a pretty good movie, whether it takes liberties with the source or not. That said, though, there are surprisingly few moments in Harry Potter that I think would have been best left out. Very few. In fact, none. It does make for a sometimes plodding pace, but none of the rugrats in attendance when I saw the film seem to have noticed, despite its over two-and-a-half hour running time. To be fair, I have no idea whether anything from the book was missing, although it feels like nothing is. Also, since this is the first in a franchise (part two is in the works now, with three and four to follow), there is necessarily an awful lot of exposition before we get into the story proper. In fact, about two thirds of the way through, I found myself wondering if a story was actually going to start happening. Yes, it did — that “Sorcerer’s Stone” is in the title for a reason — and part of the magic was that, while I was miles ahead of the film on what was going on with the titular stone, there was one big surprise I did not see coming.

Ah yes, the story, for the other five people out there who’ve never read the books. Infant Harry Potter, orphaned when his wizard parents are killed, is left with a terribly nasty middle class family, Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) and Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths). Baby Harry soon grows up into ten year-old Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), forced to sleep in a cupboard (a closet to us Yanks) under the stairs and tormented by his fat cousin Dudley (Harry Melling). Life for young Harry really sucks, and then he starts getting letters from Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Uncle Vernon destroys letter after letter, but the powers that be persist, and Harry is finally tracked down by the giant Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) at the remote outpost in which Vernon has tried to hide him. Hagrid escorts Harry to Hogwarts, but not before a side trip through a very Dickensian witches’ alley, as it were, to stock up on all the necessaries. Once at Hogwarts, Harry quickly allies with fellow students Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and locks horns with Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). Here he also meets the various professors, ghosts, animals and other creatures that inhabit the place.

All along the way, we keep getting hints that Harry Potter is a very important boy, largely because of who his parents were and what happened when they confronted the evil wizard Lord Voldemort (Richard Bremmer). It’s because of all that exposition, though, that the film slows down once we get to Hogwarts — exactly the point it should be picking up steam. Yes, there are plenty of boffo effects and interesting characters and really neat stuff to look at, but there’s also a certain lack of momentum. Fine, I suppose, for the diehard Harry Potter fans, but a little wearying to an outsideer. But only a little.

Some of the set pieces are wonderful, though, particularly the big qidditch match, a nasty combination of rugby, cricket and who knows what else, all of which takes place on flying broomsticks. It’s an effects tour-de-force, far more exciting than the pod race sequence in Phantom Menace. Storywise, it doesn’t really do a whole lot to advance the plot (aside from planting a big red herring), but it’s still a joy to watch. The alley down which Hagrid takes Harry shopping is also magical, cinematically and thematically, as is a wizard’s bank run by gremlins, although I can’t believe Rowling missed the obvious joke by not making them gnomes. Late in the film, a game of wizard’s chess in which our heroes become pieces is a wonderfully ominous bit of design, as is a visit to the forbidden dark forest, full of unicorns and centaurs. Also, Hogwarts ever-changing staircases (M.C. Escher times ten) and dining hall, with its hovering candles (or Jack-O-Lanterns, depending on season) are sheer visual treats.

Normally, I’d consider any film in which the sets and effects take center stage a failure, but Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone managed to keep my interest, even when it felt like it wasn’t going anywhere. How could it not? This film has more fine British character actors than a boxload of Ealing Comedies, and every last one of them is dead-on right for their roles. The aforementioned Richard Griffiths is every child’s nightmare uncle personified, and Robbie Coltrane is a standout as the giant who often says more than he ought to. Think “The Ghost of Christmas Past” from any good version of A Christmas Carol and you get the picture. As the faculty of the school, Richard Harris, the incredible Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman embody everything we need to know about their characters on first sight. In cameos, watch for John Hurt as magic wand salesman Mr. Ollivander, John Cleese as the ghost Nearly Headless Nick and Zoë Wannamaker as (broom) flying instructor Madame Hooch.

Even more amazing, though, and probably what makes the film watchable is that the producers have assembled a cast of mostly unknown young actors who also personify their roles completely. Standouts are Tom Felton as Malfoy, a kid whose face just screams “evil little snot.” At the opposite end of the spectrum is Sean Biggerstaff as Oliver Wood, the upperclassman who teaches Harry how to play qidditch. Despite being a fairly unknown actor, Biggerstaff looks familiar from the get-go and has the aura of benevolent big brother type. For even as minor a character as Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), who can’t seem to cast a spell without making something explode, the actor is the character. You can’t fault the film for not having verisimilitude, despite its setting.

As for our lead trio, Harry (Radcliffe), Ron (Grint) and Hermione (Watson), these young actors are a delight to watch and, despite being surrounded by such distinguished name talent, they carry the movie. Of the three, Daniel Radcliffe is the only one to have appeared on film before, in The Tailor of Panama, as well as in the BBC version (not the Hallmark/TNT version) of David Copperfield as young David. Obviously, the producers took a big risk, especially with the untested Grint and Watson, but they all really pull it off. Besides, you have to love it when an actor’s name — Rupert Grint — sounds more like a character in the film than his character’s name does.

Now, while the film has not turned me into a raving Harry Potter fan, I can see why the books have become such a phenomenon. J.K. Rowling, whether consciously or not, taps into archetypal storytelling with her lead characters. After all, Harry Potter is an orphan with special powers who grows up being mistreated until he is reclaimed by those who know his origins and call him upon his quest. Naturally, his quest leads back to the circumstances that made him an orphan in the first place and along the way he teams up with two others, the trio becoming an Id-Ego-Superego combination that will do battle with the forces of evil. It doesn’t hurt that magic is involved, and the whole thing is told with that very dry, off-kilter and sweetly funny sensibility that the British have perfected. It isn’t as dark and grim as, say, the late Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide, but it’s still part of the same universe, taking old conventions and then tweaking them, creating logical rules for illogical things and just generally having a good time with it all.

So… if you’ve never been exposed to Harry Potter but want to find out what it’s all about and you don’t mind leisurely story-telling, the film is worth a look. I would guess, as well, that if you’re a rabid Harry Potter fan, the film is a must-see, although by this time, you’ve probably already seen it at least twice. The only folk I would recommend stay away are those who have to take everything seriously or are looking for complex layers of plot and intrigue. There aren’t any. This is essentially a film for older children (but probably not for very young ones) and grown-ups who can appreciate a creative children’s tale that doesn’t pander to adult sensibilities via cynicism or in-jokes. Yes, in a way, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone does feel a little old-fashioned — but nowadays, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles and a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog, Shadow, rolling in kibble.



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