cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, and Maggie Smith
director: Chris Columbus
147 minutes (PG) 2001
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Warner DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Christopher Geary
Based on the novel by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter is about a young lad who goes to the special school of Hogwarts, effortlessly rises to top of the class, then saves the whole education system for wizard-kind by finding the ancient Philosopher’s Stone (the film was re-titled as The Sorcerer’s Stone, for US audiences… perhaps they don’t have ‘philosophy’ in America?), and preventing it from falling into the hands of an evil magician.
Once he’s left behind his reprehensibly cruel foster parents, little orphan Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, an unfortunately bland star) is inducted into the secret society of magic, to claim his place in this fantasy world. Guided by the big friendly giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Harry enters a fantastical, Dickensian fairytale version of London – marvellously created – with goblin bankers, wizened old shopkeepers (there’s John Hurt in a jolly cameo wheeze!) and candlelit tavern – but, I’m sad to say, along with its Victorian styling, this is an unpleasantly conservative fantasy movie. It’s slow moving, appallingly clichéd, and unbearably predictable. Almost everything in the tiredly uninventive product is signposted with an unashamed lack of subtlety – from Harry’s boringly easy discovery of a hidden platform at the train station, to the corny handling of an introduction to naughty schoolboy, the arrogant Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton).
Adult supporting actors are wasted on mediocre comedy scenes (John Cleese is a headless ghost in more ways than one), or whenever events require the belated intervention of an authority figure. The formidable Maggie Smith is perfectly cast as Hogwarts’ Professor McGonagall, but she’s given nothing to do. As broomstick flying instructor, Madame Hooch, the capable Zoë Wanamaker manages a strong impression, while, as the sneering Professor Snape – Hogwart’s master of potions, Alan Rickman is one of the best camp characters (they should give him the magic shop in TV’s Buffy!).
Main bad guy, Voldemort, is nothing more than another special effect, which is the only modern aspect of Harry Potter. As, like many of today’s major films, this one detours into yet another flashy digital visuals sequence whenever the plot hits a troublesome snag. Did the filmmakers hope that once their latest CG diversion is complete, audiences would have forgotten the story’s problems, and so happily accept any simplistic by-his-bootstraps solution offered? Too much of the content is second-hand material culled from decades of other books and films. Even John Williams score borrows from his Star Wars themes.
Harry Potter necessitates an almost hermetically safe, childhood realm, where even a field trip into the creepy Dark Forest – as a school detention for disobedient Harry and his adventuring chums – results in a happy ending for all concerned, when an unimposing centaur saves our hero from the unicorn-slaying vampire shape. All this may be accepted as mere harmless escapism, but the film is disagreeably elitist, too, in the way its world of magic is portrayed as a place where privilege and power are conferred, not by merit, but by birthright, and lower social strata of ordinary people are conveniently portrayed as idiots, and insultingly dismissed as ‘muggles’. In fact, although Harry spends his early years living in the cupboard under the stairs, the wickedness of child abuse is ignored, and the potential for school bullying is overlooked (no Tom Brown’s schooldays here!), making this a world lacking in brutality, tragedy, or honesty. As author, Rowling may have plundered ancient myths and folklore for ideas, but she has replaced the cultural meaning of such legends with lots of dumb jokes. And so, the three-headed guard dog is named Fluffy, and when Harry’s quest leads him to onto a room-sized chessboard we soon find out there is nothing at stake in this war game: brave sidekick Ron (Rupert Grint) survives the sacrificial checkmate unhurt, when he ought to have been killed off to give this adventure some dramatic weight at that moment.
If you have fond memories of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, Roald Dahl’s horror stories for children, or even Lewis Carroll’s Alice, this will probably seem terribly unexciting stuff. If the planned series is to grow beyond this feeble beginning, I’d suggest the filmmakers look at the great difference between Gandalf (as played by Ian McKellen) in the first Lord Of The Rings film, and Professor Dumbledore (Harris) in this distinctly unimpressive effort. Every hero, especially young ones, needs an inspirational mentor. Imagine you’re an 11-year-old boy. Who would you choose?
DVD extras: lots to see and do here for easily pleased kids. The two-disc pack includes two trailers, cast and crew notes, scene index in 35 chapters, and English subtitles. The second disc features an interactive tour of Hogwarts, but you must solve puzzles with navigation buttons to visit that off-limits third-floor corridor, and shop on Daigon Alley. There’s interviews with screenwriter Steve Kloves, the producer David Heyman, and director Chris Columbus. Art and photo galleries, magic lessons, trivia items, and InterActual DVD-ROM stuff with weblinks.