More than smoke and mirrors
By Katya Balter, Senior Staff Writer
The first time I saw "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," I nearly cried at every familiar scene: the first shot of Hogwarts, the plain street sign reading "Privet Drive," even the swarming owls bearing magical invitations to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry-any and all brought a sudden, unexpected welling of tears and an overwhelming desire to pinch the person next to me and whisper: isn't this just incredible? Are we not witnesses to the greatest film ever made? However, before you bring the economy size box of Kleenex to the movie with you, I might also point out that, in the three days previous to my viewing, I had slept at most six hours, and therefore wept over everything from a misplaced stapler to a Huggies commercial.

My second viewing was far less successful as I simply curled up and slept from the previews to the closing credits, waking up in time to thank the nice warm man next to me who put up with my snoring.

Deciding the third time had to be the charm, I returned, well-rested with several teenyboppers and my parents in tow, to finally watch "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" like a real critic, pencil and notebook in hand, with an appropriately serious, analytic expression on my face. Coming home afterwards and sitting in front of my lamentably blank computer screen I realized then I was stuck in a dreadful quandary: the impartial critic in me wanted to pan the film precisely for the same reason that the (rather rabid) fan in me wanted to praise it to the skies-the problem lay in its scrupulous faithfulness to Rowling's original novel. Negative reviews of the movie, ranging from The New York Times to the L.A. Times point to this fastidious faithfulness and blame director Chris Columbus (the only American in an exclusively British production) for lack of courage and artistic vision.

But the problem is that Columbus was doomed if he did, and screwed if he didn't: Rowling's language and writing is already so film-like (why else would so many children gobble up the books like Ritalin?) that for Columbus to have directed a truly astonishing, original work he would have had to depart almost entirely from the book. And then he would have been lynched by eight-year-olds with plastic wands in their chubby little hands and murder in their dark little hearts.

So Columbus understandably plays it safe, presenting us with a movie of such a precious, precariously-balanced conglomeration of special effects and simplistic dialogue that, at times, you feel like you are being hurried through a particularly elaborate theme-park adaptation of the novel: and on your left we have Hogwarts wizarding school, and here is a quick shot of Hagrid (my, doesn't Robbie Coltrane look the part) and, if you look quick, we have a baby dragon. Oops, you blinked, you missed it moving right along.

Even a plot summary seems pointless-let's just say if you've read "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" you won't be unpleasantly surprised by any twists in the storyline, and if you haven't, there's not much I can say to you except, get out from under your rock and get thee to a bookstore.

Surely there are redeeming factors and those must be the actors. Well yes, but this is a movie where the child actors outshine the adults. I was truly shocked when the otherwise talented Richard Harris turned Dumbledore into a flat, tedious, stereotypical father-figure and even Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall added none of her lauded dry English wit to a part begging for some sly cleverness. Where does John Cleese get off mouthing platitudes like "I always knew that lad had it in him" while floating through the air dressed to kill as Gryffindor's resident ghost Sir Nicholas De Mimsy-Porpington? You'd think a founding member of "Monty Python" would spice things up a bit. Alan Rickman's incredibly acrobatic flaring nostrils make a notable appearance while the rest of him is lost somewhere under his voluminous robes.

Which is not to say that all the characters aren't totally and instantly recognizable-they are-and that seems to have let the actors off the hook of actually acting. The only snappy, inventive performances come from the kids. Daniel Radcliffe as Harry looks pensive and downtrodden at the right parts, and wistful for the rest of the time; his is a difficult role and he pulls it off admirably, but the real surprise is Rupert Grint as Harry's best friend Ron. Grint's acting was constantly on the mark, never boring, never affected, always skillful and professional. Emma Watson, another newcomer who, like Grint, had acted only in school plays before landing this part, is a smidge too pretty to play the bossy know-it-all Hermione, but otherwise captures the charm and daintiness of her character almost eerily well.

A major failing that grated on my ears and many of the kids present as well was the much touted score by John Williams of "Star Wars," "Hook" and "Jaws" fame. It played too heavily, with its overwhelming soaring crescendos and unnecessarily frantic climaxes overshadowing the action, and when it attempted to be unobtrusive, it only managed to become unremarkable.

If you've read the book and go watch the movie to see Hogwarts come alive on screen, you are in for a real treat, as no scenic detail was overlooked: food appears magically on plates, the people in the paintings move and interact just like in the novel, Fluffy, the three-headed dog guarding the entrance to an underground cave, is both cute and ferocious as only a computer animated animal can be. My favorite scene in the book, when Harry sees his dead parents in the magical Mirror of Erised, translates passably well onto the screen and even the invisibility cloak is so cleverly done you almost overlook the technical razzle-dazzle that made it all possible.

It seems too predictable to say the movie doesn't capture the magic of the novel, for what movie does really? But the movie doesn't capture the magic of a movie, which is a greater failing, and one that, if Columbus gives us the promised next six movies, must be remedied, and quickly.

This film is a freebie for Columbus and Rowling (who herself had much to do with the very faithfulness I take issue with-I am a firm believer that the author should have minimal impact on how a movie is made, for it is not their domain), as there was practically no way for the movie to bomb with the millions of kids (and adults) wanting to see it again and again. But I would rather think of this movie as a prequel, a setting up of sorts that will grow and flourish into a truly, dare I say it, magical series without being chained down to the kind of precision and accuracy that took away from this film's appeal.

But wait! You still totally gotta see it though! Might I suggest viewing it on two hours of sleep, in a theater jam-packed with children who clap and gasp at the right parts, and allow yourself the luxury of not thinking for once and just being entertained. Because, at its heart, this movie is pure, unadulterated whimsy and should be treated as such.

Issue 00, Submitted 2001-11-28 17:20:19