To the extent that what’s onscreen represents an uncannily accurate reflection of what’s on the printed page, the long-awaited film version of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” is a near-perfect commercial and cultural commodity. For the tens of millions of fans the world over who have taken J.K. Rowling’s marvelously imaginative 1997 novel (and its three sequels thus far) to their hearts, Warner Bros.’ smartly produced and elaborately manufactured $125 million-plus visualization will essentially make their dreams come true — the script is faithful, the actors are just right, the sets, costumes, makeup and effects match and sometimes exceed anything one could imagine. That the picture never takes on a life or soul of its own is another matter that will have little or no bearing on how many times youngsters and even adults will return to this high-flying entertainment that looks poised to become one of the biggest-grossing films of all time.
In historical terms, the most surprising but apt comparison to be drawn is with “Gone With the Wind,” another literary sensation that spawned a film version that had to meet similarly demanding public expectations. In both cases, everyone had an opinion about the casting, which ultimately turned out brilliantly; the authors (both female, coincidentally) desired a fidelity to the text, which was honored; directors were hired who could be counted upon to obediently serve the material; vast sums were spent to create the physical worlds of the novels, and the producers bucked conventional thinking about running time to include all the necessary incidents. Then as now, the result would seem to be exactly what the eager public is waiting for.
From the point of view of protecting and thus maximizing the franchise, one must acknowledge the smarts of producer David Heyman and Warner Bros. in making all the right decisions, from keeping it “British” to realizing that a high-powered and personal filmmaker (such as Steven Spielberg or Terry Gilliam, both of whom were up for the job) was not only unnecessary but actually undesirable, given that textual alterations and idiosyncratic flights of fancy would have been distracting at best and irritating at worst for the intended audience. This “Harry Potter” is therefore a product more than a film or, as the text would have it, a Voldemort required to leech off another being in order to stay alive.
Steve Kloves’ carefully accomplished screenplay begins, reassuringly, with a condensed version of the book’s opening: On a quiet suburban London street, owls appear, a magician saps the light out of street lamps, a cat turns into a woman resembling a witch and a bearded giant delivers a bundled tyke to a doorstep.
The boy, of course, is Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), an orphan who remains remarkably cheerful in the face of the endless resentment and abuse dispensed by the small-minded uncle and aunt with whom he’s been left; he’s kept in a cupboard under the stairs, is tortured by his bully cousin and isn’t allowed to open the formally addressed envelopes that mysteriously begin arriving for him. The Dursleys are shocked when the same giant, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), turns up on Harry’s 11th birthday to inform the lad that he is actually the son of two murdered wizards and now is welcome to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry.
Even from this introductory stretch, however, it’s obvious that director Chris Columbus positions his camera very arbitrarily and has little idea how to stage action dramatically or visually build to climaxes, relying instead on special effects and John Williams’ infernally busy score to punch up key moments. But again, no matter, as we are swept off into a magical world that has been physicalized to an extraordinarily appealing degree by the work of production designer Stuart Craig and his vast team, the locations, the effects and actors.
Most important among the latter, of course, is Radcliffe. The boy’s regular features, slightly shaggy dark hair, clear eyes and round specs make him instantly embraceable as Harry, and his performance goes on to strike the right balance between normal, but not exceptional, brightness and the gradual understanding of the extraordinary powers he possesses. One of the film’s most delightful interludes is Harry’s shopping tour with Hagrid through colorful Diagon Alley, where the bank is staffed by some fabulously crabby goblins that Charles Dickens might have appreciated. Harry obtains his wand from a wizened old clerk (John Hurt) who knew his father and Hagrid makes a withdrawal of the titular rock (called the “Philosopher’s Stone” in the English edition of both book and film) to spirit back to Hogwarts for safe keeping.
The edifying sense of the novel materializing before one’s eyes is maintained when Harry is directed to Track 9¾ to catch the special express train that will take him and his fellow first-year students Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) to Hogwarts. When, at 40 minutes in, the school is at last seen, with the kids rowing across a lake at night toward its towering turrets and spires sitting upon a fortress-like promontory, the film’s desired sense of wonder and mystery about what lies ahead sets in.
The “witch” of the prologue reappears as Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), who presides over the all-important “sorting” of students among four houses adjudicated in the massive, candle-and-torch-lit Great Hall by a delightful talking hat. Harry, Ron and Hermione end up together in Gryffindor, while their little nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is assigned to Slytherin, where the frightening Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) holds sway. Magically, a feast appears on the long tables, ghosts charmingly flit about, paintings come to life and the stairways switch positions without warning.
At his first flying lesson, Harry is discovered to be so adept at maneuvering a broomstick that he’s made the “seeker” on the Gryffindor team in the game of Quidditch, a fabulously dangerous sport that sees the players darting above an arena on brooms in pursuit of some high-velocity hard balls. The flying part is superbly pulled off visually, but the Quidditch match itself, while absorbing to watch, is the only sequence that features an off-putting CGI feel, as the camera moves are far too precise and measured and the backgrounds look too clean.
In the course of a highly eventful school year, a central issue emerges: It seems that someone evil, very likely Snape, is plotting to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone on behalf of Voldemort, a supreme wizard who went over to the Dark Side but has been short on power since he killed Harry’s parents but couldn’t quite finish off the boy. As they learn more, the kids realize the stone lies beyond a trap door guarded by a monstrous three-headed dog incongruously named Fluffy.
In a crammed succession of events that jumps directly from such book high points as Harry’s nocturnal wanderings in his invisibility cloak (very nifty) and seeing his late parents in a magic mirror to slipping past Fluffy into the Devil’s Snare of binding tendrils and a life-sized chessboard, the youthful trio has its courage and ingenuity tested to the extreme in a battle of overt good and evil.
This latter section, while frequently eye-popping and likely scare-inducing for little kids, flattens out the narrative due to the lack of dramatic modulation, and the chess match unfortunately emphasizes violence over suspense. Making matters much worse is Williams’ hyperactive musical score, which thunders over everything, never takes a rest and is completely uninterested in developing any emotional themes to evoke Harry’s inner life of parental longing. Half as much music would have been more than enough, at half the volume.
But the cast compensates in spades, particularly the adorably effusive Watson as the bright and inquisitive Hermione, and Grint, whose Ron Weasley develops nicely from a second banana into a valuable warrior for good. On the adult side, Coltrane is perhaps first among equals as the outsized Hagrid, but it is no surprise how ideally such pros as Smith, Rickman, Hurt, Richard Harris as the white-maned Professor Dumbledore, Ian Hart as the mysterious Professor Quirrell and Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw as the anxiously normal Dursleys fit their roles.
The extensive effects, which reportedly consumed nearly half the film’s budget and were farmed out to nine credited effects houses internationally under the overall supervision of Robert Legato, are generally outstanding and enjoyable; some of the creature work, such as the centaur, even evokes the stop-motion work of pioneer Ray Harryhausen. Judianna Markovsky’s costume designs are also a source of continual pleasure, while John Seale’s widescreen lensing handsomely spreads the action across the screen. Print trade-screened, however, was frequently out of focus, and it’s impossible to tell whether this stemmed from lensing and/or lab problems or projection difficulties.