Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Directed by Christopher Columbus
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson
Only two types of people inhabit the Harry Potter Universe – those who’ve read the book, and those haven’t. Who is HP? Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) grows up lonely and abused at the hands of his boring stepparents, the Dursleys (Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw). His real folks were powerful yet normal looking sorcerers, killed by evil wizard Voldemort when they refused to join the Dark Side, a splinter group with an ill-defined agenda. Voldemort went after the infant Harry, but Harry’s dripping with amazing yet unrealized wizarding potential. Now Harry’s 11, and it’s time for him to go off to boarding school at Hogwart’s and Realize His Destiny. The Dursleys will have none of that, and Hogwart’s sends groundskeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) to rescue him from middle class boredom. Hogwart’s is a pretty standard British boarding school – drafty rooms, bizarre yet lovable faculty, and brutal athletic events, but you do learn how to levitate stuff and turn your enemies into newts. Harry blossoms, making fast friends with Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). Ron’s the one with ginger hair and six older brothers, and Hermione is the nosey know it all. Soon they determine something’s afoot – Voldemort is after a sorcerer’s stone, an object that will give him eternal life and allow him to finish off Harry. It’s adventure time, and of course the kiddies outsmart the adults.
This is the first of seven planned films based on successive volumes of Harry’s career in school. Since this is one of the most popular children’s series ever, only death or an evil magician could prevent it. This film does a superb job of following the book – so much so that the book seems more a screenplay than a novel in its own right. The supporting cast is exceptional – Richard Harris as the bearded Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwart’s, Maggie Smith as Head Mistress Minerva McGonagall, an oily Alan Rickman as Prof. Snape, and even a cameo by John Cleese as ghost Nearly Headless Nick. Cleese got top billing in the credits, but only had about four lines, so he must have helped finance this blockbuster. Of course, with a magical theme and teraflops of processor power at hand, the special effects are impressive, but what really struck me is how the effects propelled the story along, rather than dominating it, as so often happens. Many a scene will have the purist wondering, “Was that a matte, a man, or a Muppet?” This alone makes the movie delightful.
There’s a lot of smoke about the satanic aspects of the Harry Potter tales, and frankly, smoke is all it is. Harry and his classmates study magic, just as students study accounting or medicine or agriculture – it’s a profession, and someday they will support a family and join the Rotary. Harry’s tale reminds you of Where the Wild Things Are or similar stories – a child leaves the nurture of home and begins to strike out on his own, make decisions and abide by their consequences. Sorcerer’s Stone above all else tell a story without talking down to the audience. It is never cute-cute but rather shows children dealing with complicated situation and motivations and having fun along the way. There’s no more mysticism than in Star Wars or Lion King, and wizardry never involves selling your soul to a dark power. It’s more like learning physics – not everyone can deal with the math, and most Muggles couldn’t explain how a light bulb works anyway. Joining the Dark Side is sort of like working for an Afghani defense company, if such a thing existed.
If you have read the books, you’ve seen the film by now and you’ll see it again. If you’ve not read the books, seeing the film is a pleasant way to avoid flipping through all those pages and still having some conversational fodder for the soccer moms holiday dinner dance. Should you do both? It’s not a bad idea, but the few additional scenes in the book won’t enlighten you. Besides, it would spoil the ending.