November 16, 2001

Wizard School Without the Magic

Harry and friends

THE world may not be ready yet for the film equivalent of books on tape, but this peculiar phenomenon has arrived in the form of the film adaptation of J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." The most highly awaited movie of the year has a dreary, literal- minded competence, following the letter of the law as laid down by the author. But it's all muted flourish, with momentary pleasures, like Gringott's, the bank staffed by trolls that looks like a Gaudí throwaway. The picture is so careful that even the tape wrapped around the bridge of Harry's glasses seems to have come out of the set design. (It never occurred to anyone to show him taping the frame together.)

The movie comes across as a covers act by an extremely competent tribute band — not the real thing but an incredible simulation — and there's an audience for this sort of thing. But watching "Harry Potter" is like seeing "Beatlemania" staged in the Hollywood Bowl, where the cheers and screams will drown out whatever's unfolding onstage.

To call this movie shameless is beside the point. It would probably be just as misguided to complain about the film's unoriginality because (a) it has assumed that the target audience doesn't want anything new and (b) Ms. Rowling's books cannibalize and synthesize pop culture mythology, proof of the nothing-will-ever-go- away ethic. She has come up with something like "Star Wars" for a generation that never had a chance to thrill to its grandeur, but this is "Young Sherlock Holmes" as written by C. S. Lewis from a story by Roald Dahl.

The director, Chris Columbus, is as adept as Ms. Rowling at cobbling free-floating cultural myths into a wobbly whole. The first film from a Columbus script, "Gremlins," had the cheeky cheesiness of an urban legend written for Marvel Comics. Mr. Columbus probably felt like the right choice for "Harry Potter" because he has often used the same circuit boards as Ms. Rowling to design his fables. His "Home Alone" movies, "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Stepmom" employ the theme of abandonment by parents as if it were a brand name. And like Mr. Columbus's films, Ms. Rowling's novels pull together archetypes that others have long exploited. This movie begins with a shot of a street sign that will cause happy young audiences to erupt in recognition, as the dry-witted giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) drop a baby at the Doorstep of Destiny.

Years later Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), sporting the jagged thunderbolt scar across his forehead, is living there with his terrors of an aunt (Fiona Shaw) and uncle (Richard Griffiths).

Harry is the kid all kids dream they are. His special abilities are recognized by people other than the ones who have raised him. Hagrid returns to rescue him from his tiny room under the stairs and clues Harry in about the boy's inner force, which is why he doesn't fit into the world of Muggles, the nonmagical and nonbelievers.

Harry is shown the way to Hogwarts, an English boarding school for wizards run by Professor Dumbledore (Richard Harris), where Harry pals up with the gawky but decent Ron (Rupert Grint) and the bossy, precocious Hermione (Emma Watson). The instructors, who rule the classrooms with varying degrees of imperiousness, include the acid Snape (Alan Rickman) and the mousy stutterer Quirrell (Ian Hart).

The casting is the standout, from the smaller roles up; it seems that every working British actor of the last 20 years makes an appearance. John Hurt blows through as an overly intense dealer in magic equipment, schooling Harry on selecting his tools. While shopping for his magic equipment, Harry comes across the Sorcerer's Stone, a bedeviled jewel whose power affects his first year at the enchanted school.

Mr. Radcliffe has an unthinkably difficult role for a child actor; all he gets to do is look sheepish when everyone turns to him and intones that he may be the greatest wizard ever. He could have been hobbled by being cast because he resembles the Harry of the book cover illustrations. It's a horrible burden to place on a kid, but it helps that Mr. Radcliffe does have the long-faced mournfulness of a 60's pop star. He also possesses a watchful gravity and, shockingly, the large, authoritative hands of a real wizard.

The other child actors shine, too. Ms. Watson has the sass and smarts to suggest she might cast a spell of her own on Harry in the coming years and, one supposes, sequels. Mr. Grint has a surprising everyman quality, but the showstopper is Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy. This drolly menacing blond with a widow's peak is Harry's plotting foe, and he has the rotted self-confidence of one of the upperclassmen from Lindsay Anderson's "If." There has never been a kid who got so much joy from speaking his oddball name.

Ms. Shaw and Mr. Griffiths are enjoyably swinish, the most resolute of Muggles. Mr. Rickman, whose licorice-black pageboy has the bounce of a coiffure from a hair products ad, is a threatening schoolroom don who delivers his monologues with a hint of mint; his nostrils flare so athletically that he seems to be doing tantric yoga with his sinuses. The mountainously lovable Mr. Coltrane really is a fairy-tale figure that kids dream about.

The movie's most consistently entertaining scene features a talking hat, and that's not meant as an insult. The Sorting Hat, which has more personality than anything else in the movie, assigns the students to the various dormitories; it puts Harry, Ron and Hermione together.

But the other big set pieces are a letdown. The Quidditch match — the school sport that's part polo, part cricket and part Rollerball, played on flying brooms — has all the second-rate sloppiness of the race in "Stars Wars — Episode 1: The Phantom Menace." It's a blur of mortifyingly ordinary computer-generated effects.

Given that movies can now show us everything, the manifestations that Ms. Rowling described could be less magical only if they were delivered at a news conference. And the entrance that may be as eagerly awaited as Harry's appearance — the arrival of Voldemort (Richard Bremmer), the archvillain — is a disappointment, a special effect that serves as a reminder of how much he stands in Darth Vader's shadow.

This overly familiar movie is like a theme park that's a few years past its prime; the rides clatter and groan with metal fatigue every time they take a curve. The picture's very raggedness makes it spooky, which is not the same thing as saying the movie is intentionally unsettling.

No one has given Harry a pair of Hogwarts-edition Nikes, nor do he, Hermione and Ron stop off to super- size it at the campus McDonald's: exclusions that seem like integrity these days. (There's no need for product placement. The Internet is likely to have a systems crash from all the kids going online to order maroon-and-gold scarves, which Harry and his dorm mates wear.)

Another kind of exclusion seems bothersome, though. At a time when London is filled with faces of color, the fleeting appearances by minority kids is scarier than Voldemort. (Harry's gorgeous owl, snow white with sunken dark eyes and feather tails dappled with black, gets more screen time than they do.)

Mr. Columbus does go out of his way to give a couple of lines to a little boy with a well-groomed head of dreadlocks. This movie may not be whiter than most, but the peering- from-the-sidelines status accorded to minorities seems particularly offensive in a picture aimed at kids. It's no different in the books, really, but young imaginations automatically correct for this paucity.

A lack of imagination pervades the movie because it so slavishly follows the book. The filmmakers, the producers and the studio seem panicked by anything that might feel like a departure from the book — which already feels film-ready — so "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" never takes on a life of its own.

Someone has cast a sleepwalker's spell over the proceedings, and at nearly two and a half hours you may go under, too. Its literal-mindedness makes the film seem cowed by the chilling omnipresence of its own Voldemort, Ms. Rowling, who hovered around the production.

The movie is so timid it's like someone who flinches when you extend a hand to shake. This film is capable of a certain brand of magic: it may turn the faithful into Muggles.

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is rated PG (Parental Guidance suggested), probably so that kids older than 12 won't think it's baby stuff. It includes scenes of magic someone must have found intense and threatening and a soup็on of strong language.


Directed by Chris Columbus; written by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J. K. Rowling; director of photography, John Seale; edited by Richard Francis-Bruce; music by John Williams; production designer, Stuart Craig; visual effects supervisor, Rob Legato; produced by David Heyman; released by Warner Brothers. Running time: 146 minutes. This film is rated PG.

WITH: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), John Cleese (Nearly Headless Nick), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Warwick Davis (Professor Flitwick), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dursley), Richard Harris (Professor Dumbledore), Ian Hart (Professor Quirrell), John Hurt (Mr. Ollivander), Alan Rickman (Professor Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petunia Dursley), Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley), Zo๋ Wanamaker (Madame Hooch), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley), David Bradley (Mr. Filch) and Richard Bremmer (Lord Voldemort).

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company