Review: 'Potter' well acted, heavy handed
Not quite the sum of its parts
By Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- There's little point in announcing to fans of J.K. Rowling's enormously popular "Harry Potter" novels that "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" has finally hit our movie screens -- even Warner Bros.' selection of Chris Columbus as the film's director was covered with the kind of zeal that normally accompanies cardinals picking a Pope.
Well, now you get to see the finished product, and most Potter obsessives will find something to applaud before the credits roll.
But the British press' advance word that Columbus has whipped up a fantasy film masterpiece is overstated to say the least. "Perfunctory" would be the best way to describe his approach to the material.
Those of you who already have the plot permanently tattooed on your cerebellum can speed-read this part: Young Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) lives with his piggish aunt, uncle, and cousin on suburban Privet Drive, somewhere in England. A lightning bolt scar on Harry's forehead, and his ability to make magical things happen when he's fearful or angry, suggest that he's a special person indeed.
One stormy evening, a towering man named Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) steals Harry away to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Harry, whose name is spoken by the school's professors and students alike in hushed tones, will be trained to fulfill his calling as a world-class Wizard.
Triumph of casting
Hogwarts, a production designer's dream, is crawling with enchanted characters and even a few enchanted stairwells. Harry's teachers are, among others, Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris), Transfiguration Professor Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Professor Quirrell (Ian Hart), Professor Flitwick (Warwick Davis), and Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), a creepy expert on the art of potion-making. Harry's enchanted classmates include Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and a particularly snotty kid named Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton).
Eventually, Harry, Ron, and Hermione will take part in a twisted adventure that includes an excitingly staged battle with an angry troll, a dangerous skirmish with life-size chess pieces, and a couple of encounters with Fluffy, a snarling three-headed dog who could conceivably swallow the kids whole.
First, and arguably foremost, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is a triumph of casting. You can tell that a lot of care went into matching the perfect actor with Rowling's evocative descriptions.
Happily, the proper performers are genuinely talented. Coltrane stands out (and up) as the likeable, if dim Rubeus, but Rickman steals the show as Professor Snape. His mellifluous voice slides around syllables like a snake crawling up a tree trunk. He really is frightening at times, even though the movie's overall tone is pitched toward tongue-in-cheek humor.
Trying not to offend
There are, of course, numerous set pieces ... almost too many, when you get right down to it. An early visit to Gringotts Bank, which is run by grotesque goblins who look like dehydrated Hume Cronyns, is beautifully realized. But the goblins get dumped in a matter of minutes, in the headlong pursuit of several other painstakingly created semi-scenes.
Later, seven or eight minutes are spent on Harry's introduction to the game of quidditch, which comes off as a variation on the airborne motorcycle chase in "Return of the Jedi." It's entertaining enough, but it's a suck-up to generic blockbuster expectations when Rowling has created mysterious events that are far more worthy of the extra screen time.
Lest we forget, Columbus' last three movies were "Nine Months," "Step Mom," and "Bicentennial Man." If he were capable of out-Spielberging the competition -- that is, making a fantasy film that floats rather than stomps -- surely he would have done it before now.
The problem with "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" -- not that it's a mess -- is that Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves are so careful to avoid offending anyone by excising a passage from the book, the so-called narrative is more like a jamboree inside Rowling's head.
When you consider that the highlights of Columbus' filmmaking career before now were Macaulay Culkin belting Joe Pesci with a can of paint and Robin Williams accidentally setting his falsies on fire in the kitchen, this could have been a disaster. Ultimately, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" rises and falls on the waves of Rowling's rightfully celebrated imagination, and that will be more than enough for it to make a zillion dollars. Once it does that, even partial naysayers will be forced to retreat for fear of being clocked with a broomstick.
Parts of "Harry Potter" are intense enough to scare very young children, but kids who are familiar with the books will probably laugh at even the most frightening beastie. Fluffy, in particular, is enough to make anyone a little nervous. To be honest, the final 40 minutes aren't too far removed from "The Goonies." Warner Bros. is an AOL Time Warner sister company of CNN.com.
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