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Harry Potter mostly enchants, thanks to dazzling effects

Everyone who sees Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone should get the inside joke in the film's prologue. Richard Harris' wizard/headmaster Albus Dumbledore remarks, of the title character as a baby, "There won't be a child in our world who won't know his name."

He's referring to the world of witchcraft and mystical creatures, as opposed to the unmagical or "Muggle" realm in which you and I dwell. But here Harry Potter's every bit as renowned, being the hero of J.K. Rowling's unimaginably successful books for young readers, which are thoroughly enjoyed by adults as well.

The very fame of the Harry Potter books proves a boon to the big screen adaptation, and not just because director Chris Columbus and writer Steven Kloves seldom tamper with the characters and settings that millions know by heart. The movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone approaches Rowling's creation almost with reverence, and that tone nicely matches young Harry's awe at being initiated into the ways of magic.

Played by Daniel Radcliffe, Harry has been raised in a drab English suburb by his swinish relatives, the Dursleys. Abusive -- and not particularly funny -- they've hidden from Harry his true nature, until the truth arrives in the form of a torrent of letters delivered by owls, followed by a hirsute giant named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). Hagrid reveals to Harry that his parents were powerful magicians, killed resisting an evil warlock named Voldemort.

Having turned 11, Harry is admitted to Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, and Hagrid shows him how to find such hidden magical places as where to buy school supplies. The cleverness of Rowling's conceit is how closely the supernatural world mirrors our modern rules for politics, fashion and commerce, from famous wizard trading cards to deluxe model flying broomsticks.

The film takes its time following Harry to such places as a goblin bank, the Hogwarts Express train and the sprawling school itself, introducing such future friends as Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) and professors played by the likes of Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman. At times it feels like a tour of a HarryPotterLand theme park, but the effects are undeniably marvelous, like candles floating in mid-air and the school's Escher-like shifting staircases. The swooping strains of John Williams' score becomes a pest, unnecessarily nudging us at how wondrous it all is, with the quiet scenes being the most likable, as when John Hurt's shopkeeper helps Harry buy a magic wand.

The splendor of the setting dwarfs the supposed plot -- which wasn't the greatest in Rowling's novel -- involving the titular stone and mysterious goings-on on the school grounds. Whenever Harry, Ron and Hermione start doing Hardy Boys-style sleuthing, it's like the audience has to be reminded that the storyline still exists.

With so many effects, it's not surprising that some computer-generated images are too obvious, and that includes the big game of Quidditch, which resembles soccer on broomsticks. Though it's certainly imaginative, it's not as visually coherent or even as solid-looking as the chases and races from the Star Wars series. More exciting are the young trio's run-in with a dimwitted troll in the girl's bathroom and a climactic challenge that'll please fans of Dungeons and Dragons and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The child actors are more adequate than exceptional, with Watson being an amusingly imperious know-it-all and Ron grounding many scenes with comic relief. Radcliffe tends to underplay Harry's responses, which is preferable to the alternative (especially considering that Columbus directed the Home Alone films). It makes sense that parentless Harry would have a melancholy streak, but we tend to be interested in him because interesting things happen to him, not because of Radcliffe's portrayal. The most valuable players end up being Coltrane, with his masterful comic timing, and whoever wrangles the owls.

At two-and-a-half hours, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone paradoxically feels over-long while leaving some plot points and characters under-developed. But it isn't dull, having more than enough ingenuity to entertain both non-reading skeptics and Harry's hordes of fans. Columbus and company used not alchemy but good sense, a giant budget and faith in the book's winning qualities to spin Rowling's novel into box office gold. Presto change-o.

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