What is it you want to know about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?
Chances are, you already know whether or not you want to see the movie. After all, by this point nearly everyone has an opinion of some kind about author J. K. Rowling’s white-hot series of novels about the young wizard-in-training from Surrey. And the film production is so reverentially faithful to the first book that however you feel about the book is a pretty reliable indicator of how you’ll feel about the movie.
Are you one of the book’s legions of fans? Rest assured: You’ll enjoy the movie. Screenwriter Steven Kloves (Wonder Boys) and director Chris Columbus (Home Alone; Bicentennial Man) have taken no chances and no risks, simply transposing as much of Rowling’s 300-plus page story as they can possibly fit into 2½ hours of screen time.
Quidditch, Severus Snape, Diagon Alley, Nearly Headless Nick, Wizard’s Chess, the invisibility cloak — it’s all here, more or less, very much as you probably imagined it. Purists will find some sins of omission (e.g., the absence of Peeves the poltergeist), but few of commission, and in general will be able to enjoy the film on the same level that they have the book. (More on this in a bit.) However, parents who’ve read the books with their children should note that some scenes of menace can be more overwhelming on the big screen than on the printed page. This is not a movie for young children.
Are you suspicious of or hostile to the books’ treatment of magic and/or moral issues? You already know you aren’t going to see the movie. Young Harry Potter is still a wizard-in-training, still attending Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft. He still breaks a lot of rules, and Hermione still covers for him with a pointless lie when there was no reason to hide the truth.
I have certain reservations myself about the magic in Harry Potter, which are discussed at length in my essay "Harry Potter vs. Gandalf". However, it’s at least possible to take a more sanguine view of the whole thing. The USCCB Office for Film and Broadcasting, in their review, declared:
Parents concerned about the film’s sorcery elements should know that it is unlikely to pose any threat to Catholic beliefs. "Harry Potter" is so obviously innocuous fantasy that its fiction is easily distinguishable from real life… Parents and children can enjoy this fetching tale in the same spirit of the time-honored tradition of sorcery in Eastern Literature, such as the magical figure of Merlin in the Arthurian legend.
Are you looking for some help making up your mind what to think about the Harry Potter phenomenon? Once again, see my essay "Harry Potter vs. Gandalf". There’s only so much you can do in a movie review.
Do you want to know whether you’ll like the film if you haven’t read the books and don’t know that much about them? Don’t worry: Knowing the books isn’t a prerequisite. A more important question is whether you tend to like movies (and books) of this sort. Here are a few points of comparison: Matilda; Jumanji; The Witches; James and the Giant Peach; Willy Wonka. If you tend to like these kinds of movies, chances are you’ll enjoy Harry Potter.
You might have noticed that four of the above five titles stem from the mind of Roald Dahl. No name has been mentioned as often as Dahl’s in characterizing Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, which have the same wonky inventiveness, the same blend of the magical and the grotesque, the same unassuming underdog heroes beleaguered by assorted beastly prigs, bullies, and villains who invariably get their comeuppance with gleeful thoroughness.
In this case, the hero is young Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), an 11-year-old orphan living in Dickensian distress with an overbearing uncle, unbearable aunt, and bullying cousin. Like young Luke Skywalker living with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine, Harry has no idea of his exotic parentage — or of the unique role he is destined to play in a great conflict between good and evil.
When he finally learns who his parents were — and how they died — he finds himself swept up into a hidden world of magic that looks a lot like the ordinary world as seen through a fractured looking glass. Like the fantasy espionage worlds of Spy Kids and Cats and Dogs, Harry Potter suggests that there’s realms of colorful eye candy hidden behind deceptively mundane appearances: rows of magical shops back of an inconspicuous pub; a brightly colored train to a magical destination that departs from a railway platform you can only get to by walking right through a brick wall; and of course an Etonesque boarding school on a sprawling Gothic campus where the curriculum includes flying on broomsticks and levitating feathers.
Fans of the books will be gratified by a warm rush of recognition at every turn. From the growing anticipation as the mysterious invitations to Harry at the Dursley’s begin their inexorable multiplication, to Robbie Coltrane’s comforting performance as the genial giant Hagrid, to the dazzling Hogwarts grounds, to the exhilarating speed and excitement of Quidditch, the book’s main pleasures have been expertly realized.
The art direction, sets, and props are especially well done: Diagon Alley and Hogwart’s seem almost as charmingly real as Hoggett Farm in Babe. The special effects, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. Some, like three-headed Fluffy, are convincing enough, but even children, more visually sophisticated than they used to be, will recognize that the menacing troll is as digital as Shrek.
Strangely, uneven special effects mar even the central Quidditch match, which is the functional equivalent to the pod race in Phantom Menace, but with actual dramatic tension. Although much of the action in this scene is quite convincing, occasional shots look like they come from the era of Christopher Reeve’s Superman movies, rather than the age of digital editing and bullet-time photography.
The characters have been well-cast and are generally well acted. Among the adults, casting no-brainers include Coltrane as Hagrid, Alan Rickman as the oily Snape, Maggie Smith as the stern but benevolent witch Minerva McGonagall, and cruelly underused John Cleese as the ghost Nearly Headless Nick. Only Richard Harris makes a lackluster Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, projecting little of Dumbledore’s kindliness and unshakable air of confidence-inspiring command. (A better choice might have been Richard Attenborough, doing a variation on his Kris Kringle from the 34th Street remake.) One of the most delightful performances is a voice-over by a man named Leslie Phillips (not to be confused with the female singer who now goes by "Sam"), who speaks for the Sorting Hat.
Ultimately, though, the movie rests on the shoulders of the child actors, especially Harry and his two best friends, red-headed Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and bookish, slightly priggish Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). Grint and Granger are naturals, embodying their supporting characters perfectly. Radcliffe, the only one of the three with previous acting experience, has the more difficult part, and does a fairly good job with it. If he isn’t as interesting as his two friends, well, the same could be said for the book too (and of course he has plenty of sequels to grow as a character).
Although the book’s morally problematic themes of rule-breaking and lying are in evidence, so too are the morally redemptive themes of good vs. evil, friendship and loyalty, courage, and the evil of snobbery and prejudice. Additionally, at least one of Harry’s lowest points, morally speaking, has been deleted: We no longer see him dreading to be paired in class with nerdy, friendless Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis). Neville’s still a nerd, but Harry no longer treats him like a pariah. Only Harry’s nasty archrival Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) turns up his nose at classmates of "the wrong sort."
Finally, a word about the issues of magic and the occult dealt with in my essay. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is plainly a movie about fantasy magic of the sort found in The Wizard of Oz and Cinderella. While my essay discusses some of the reasons for regarding the Harry Potter books with moral concern, these concerns need not prevent parents from taking healthy, well-adjusted children who are grounded in their faith to see this movie. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is not going to turn anyone on to wearing charms or crystals, practicing divination, or holding séances.
There are other books, movies, and TV shows for which this is more of a concern; and some parents may feel that Harry Potter may be a stepping-stone to truly offensive elements in pop culture (e.g., the witchcraft and amoral sexuality of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Philip Pullman’s anti-religious fantasies). Yet it’s also true that Harry Potter could be a part of a healthy reading/viewing diet including the likes of Tolkien and Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Howard Pyle, George MacDonald, and so on. Judging this movie on its own merits, it’s engaging fun: not for everyone perhaps, but nothing to worry most parents either.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.