Movie Review


    Mostly wizardry with Harry Potter’s big-screen debut

    By Caroline Thomas/Special to The Malibu Times

    Fans were anxiously waiting, anticipation was building, the movie hype was saturating, and finally, Harry Potter (the film) arrives and, happily, it lives up to the daunting expectations … mostly.

    Amid the garrulous pomp of a record-setting movie and merchandising campaign, it’s hard to accept that the film would be anything but great, but “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” will leave its mark on the box office, even if it is only fairly good.

    The film opens on Privet Drive, home of the drippy Dursley family, muggles (non-magic people) who are reluctantly raising young Harry Potter. Harry’s witch and wizard parents have been killed by the evil Voldemort, also known as “you-know-who”–even uttering his name is too awful. Unfortunately, life with the Dursley’s takes up a good part of the first hour without much playing to its full potential. There is an amusing snake that Harry unknowingly bewitches, and the mass owl arrival is quite a sight, but at this point only the earnest potential of Harry (played tenderly by 11-year-old Daniel Radcliffe) keeps the audience engaged.

    Mercifully, Harry is whisked away on his 11th birthday by the loveable giant, Hagrid (well-cast with Robbie Coltrane). It is time for his wizard training at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but first a shopping spree in Diagon Alley where gruesome goblins run the bank, and magic wand shops date back to 386 B.C. Here, the rich special effects emerge in an intriguing Dickensian street scene. Maybe if director Chris Columbus had stayed a little closer to Dickens and a little farther from the styles of his previous hits, “Home Alone” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the film might have an edge that could have led to greatness.

    On the Hogwarts Express, Harry meets his future comrades including Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) who amusingly finds everything “wicked!” and the loquacious Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), who grows on the boys after they save her from a gargantuan troll. The kids are all well-played and cast including Harry’s archenemy, prep boy Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), who sniffs, “Some wizardry families are better than others,” to which Harry boldly retorts, “I think I can tell them apart for myself!”

    Hogwarts is where the magic begins–literally, and onscreen. There are some stunning scenes that will surely amaze even the imaginative writer of the four best-selling Harry Potter novels, J.K. Rowling. The enchanted great hall with its suspended candles and changing sky is just as one imagines in book one. The Escher-like staircases and animated paintings are all part of the mystique of the novel.

    The adult cast is appropriately eccentric but severely underused. Richard Harris and Maggie Smith as professors Dumbledore and McGonagall seem perfectly cast, yet their characters never show much depth. Similarly, Julie Walters as Mrs. Dursley and Alan Rickman as the questionably evil professor Snape are two of the best character imports, but limited dialogue prevents them from reaching their potential.

    Fans will be content with screenwriter Steve Kloves’ (“Wonder Boys,” “The Fabulous Baker Boys”) dedication to the novel, but adding some filmic originality wouldn’t have hurt.

    Chris Columbus tends to get by with simple emotionality in his films and the sometimes uneven editing and overwrought John Williams’ soundtrack don’t help matters. What does help is a contiguous visual style, and a few magnificent Hogwarts moments, like the Quidditch match (think soccer on broomsticks) that plays with all the excitement of the pod-racing scene from most recent “Star Wars” installment.

    The film is rated PG but is suitable for all but very young children, with very little reliance on violent thrills; the only exception being the loudest chess match ever filmed.

    Not that Warner Bros. needs advice–after a $90 million opening weekend–but … a little more wizardry devoted to the dialogue of Harry Potter Number Two, please, and we’ll all be back for more.