Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (review)

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Wizard Wars

I envy today’s 8-year-olds.

Oh, I was positively aquiver with anticipation in the days leading up to the advance screening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone I attended. Like a kid waiting for Christmas morning, I was — the day couldn’t come soon enough. And now, Friday can’t come soon enough: I’m going again on opening night. I’m glad I bought those tickets two weeks ago.

I figure when I want to see a movie again right then, instantly, the moment it’s over, that movie has done its job in entertaining me.

So it’s not the childlike sense of excitement about something as silly as a movie that I envy — I’ve certainly got childishness to spare (I plan on wearing my quidditch jersey in Gryffindor colors on Friday night, dorkiness be damned). I envy kids the discovery they’re about to make, about the power of movies to dominate the imagination, to air our secret fears and desires, to become cornerstones of our psyches. I was 8 when Star Wars was first released, and it warped my brain forever. Harry Potter is this generation’s Luke Skywalker, and the Potters will be this generation’s Star Wars saga. Sorcerer’s Stone isn’t Great Film any more than Star Wars is, but it’s a great movie like Star Wars is: it’s visually clever and sweetly old-fashioned and funny and sad and exciting and scary. Voldemort may be a cheesy special effect, but he’s gonna give kids nightmares the way that Darth Vader did. Hell, his hissing gave me the heebie jeebies.
It’s not for no good reason that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are preternaturally popular — they tell the same mythologically significant story as Star Wars: the child of noble birth raised in obscurity by relatives wishing to keep the secret of his magical powers from him, powers that fate him to one day destroy a great evil. Learning the truth about his heritage sends him on a journey of self-discovery that leads, ultimately, to that great destiny, but not without many adventures and friendships along the way. (All the fundie Christians up in arms over Harry’s witchy nature should realize that this stuff of legend applies not only to Odysseus and Beowulf and Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter but to Jesus Christ, too. It’s the same story told anew — no reason to be afraid.) The details of Harry’s life are just that: mere details — either you already know his life story as well as your own (Voldemort, Lily and James, the Dursleys, the cupboard under the stairs), or you don’t need to: your local 8-year-old will fill you in as you wait on the popcorn line anyway. Either way, our brains are seemingly hardwired to resonate with his fable, which is why this new-yet-ancient tale works its magic, enthralls us in Harry’s life and endears him to us. He is us, or what we secretly wish we could be: not perfect, but smart, brave, powerful, with a strong moral compass to guide that power… a power we discover after we’ve been whisked away from the ordinary world into the wondrous one we half suspected always existed.

And that world — the one imaginative children and adults alike have come to love in Rowling’s books — is what will make Sorcerer’s Stone a tremendous box office success, and deservedly so, and what will leave fans of the books in a happy, lingering daze. The Leaky Cauldron! Diagon Alley! Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry! All there on the screen, and so wonderfully realized. The little kid and the disillusioned adult in me both long to go there, to shop the Dickensian Diagon Alley, to drop in at Gringotts (to revert to fannish raving and say that the goblins are awesome!), to wear the Sorting Hat and beg not to be placed in Slytherin, to send an owl, to attend a quidditch match (to revert to fannish raving again and say that director Chris Columbus turns the seemingly impossible-to-film game into The Phantom Menace‘s pod race, fast and furious and dangerous: Use the Force, Harry!).

Movies based on books should stand on their own — it’s impossible for me, who is so in love with the books, to judge if this one does. It seemed to me that the first hour or so of the film moved along at rather chock-a-block pace, perhaps relying too much on the viewer’s knowledge of the book to fill in the gaps. Probably, though, that’s just because I knew what was missing and where it should have been. Sorcerer’s Stone is quite contracted and condensed in places, some entire sequences gone, some characters severely reduced in scope. Columbus (Stepmom, Home Alone) has noted that if they’d included everything the movie would be six hours long. I don’t quite understand why that’s considered a problem — the 2 1/2 hours we got fly by, and I could have happily sat for another 2 1/2, at least. But the novel has been pared down with appropriate respect by screenwriter Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys).

A huge part of what makes Sorcerer’s Stone such a wonderful and winning adaptation is the casting, which could not be more perfect. (Except for Mrs. Norris. She should be scrawny and mangy, not sleek and beautiful like she is here. She’s a cat, by the way, for those two of you who haven’t read the books.) Daniel Radcliffe is absolutely delightful as Harry, innocent and knowing at the same time, his voice charmingly beginning to break in some scenes, a keen if inadvertent metaphor for a boy on the brink of amazing discoveries about himself and sudden changes in his life. Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, as Harry’s sidekicks Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, have nice comic timing for all their inexperience. And the adults in the cast are uniformly marvelous. Robbie Coltrane (From Hell) was apparently Rowling’s first choice for Hagrid, the Hogwarts gamekeeper, and her instincts couldn’t have been better — huge, and huge-hearted, he steals his scenes. As does Alan Rickman (Galaxy Quest) as Professor Snape, who’s got it in for Harry and lets him know it with constant — and hilarious — baleful glowering. John Cleese, Richard Harris, Ian Hart, John Hurt, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Zoe Wanamaker: this is a who’s who of British actors, and they are all clearly having a grand time.

It’s hard to imagine, but I suppose there will actually be moviegoers who won’t get chills when Hagrid, as the film opens, flies in on his motorcyle with the baby Harry in his arms and good-bye tears in his eyes. There will be folks who sit in the dark and watch Harry walk through the wall between platforms 9 and 10 at King’s Cross station who won’t feel a surge of wonder as he breaks through onto Platform 9 3/4 and gets his first incredulous look at Hogwarts Express.

Those people, I don’t envy.

Addendum 05.31.02

DVDs, with their juicy capabilities and capacious room for goodies, have been a movie geek’s dream, the opportunity to drool over all manner of making-of info, from production sketches to director commentaries to alternative endings. The Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 2-disc set may be the first DVD package from a major studio that takes advantage of DVD technology to quell the thirst not of adult filmphiles — who have always been the market for DVDs — but that of the movie’s vast prepubescent audience. If you can bear to let the kids touch your home-theater system, they’ll have a ball with this set, full of extras that are more like games than the kind of rat-packy detail grownup movie lovers look for. Disc 1 contains just the movie, in English and Spanish both spoken and subtitled, and a bare-bones cast-and-crew list. But Disc 2 contains much of Harry’s world, from Hogwarts and its grounds to the shops of Diagon Alley, open to exploration and full of puzzles — tap the bricks in the correct sequence to reveal the secret entrance to Diagon Alley (like all good and silly puzzles for small children, if you get it wrong a few times, it lets you in anyway, lest frustration drive you away). There’s nothing there when you get in, at least nothing of interest to adult fans, but the kids can play with wands at Olivander’s and make a withdrawal from Gringotts. The 360-degree tour of Hogwarts isn’t of production designer Stuart Craig’s beautiful sets (which I’d far rather have explored in detail) but a rather blurry, fish-eye look round the school in such manner to disguise the fact that they’re sets seemingly enhanced by CGI. The deleted scenes are fun for fans of all ages — Hagrid on London’s tube is hilarious, and Harry’s Christmas morning scene is sweetly touching — and then there’s this intriguing feature: watch a short clip dubbed into many languages (including Japanese, Slovensky, and Hebrew), underscoring the amazing international appeal of the film. The movie itself is still fab Willy Wonka fun for throwing on while I’m working, but now I want a DVD package for Harry’s grownup fans. How cool would a commentary track by Dan Radcliffe and Rupert Grint be?

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