|Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 28 May 2002|
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone" is one of those movies that (assuming you liked it the first time) actually improves on repeat viewing. Revisiting Hogwarts, that renowned English academy for young wizards and witches in training, turns out to be even more enchanting the second time around.
It’s a funny thing with film adaptations of beloved books. Even the worst adaptation can’t mess up the source material – the book will still be there, whatever the movie is like. Even so, some people view movies made from their literary favorites with the wariness reserved for meeting a favorite penpal in the flesh – there’s a fear that the personality that seemed so charming on paper or online won’t live up to its promise when seen to stand, move and speak.
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone" passes the test with (literally, in the Quidditch scenes) flying colors. 2001 stands as a banner year for fantasy films – between "Harry Potter" and Peter Jackson’s mighty "Lord of the Rings," the curse of great fantasy literature being transformed into lousy movies seems conclusively broken. Director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves clearly had a devilish task managing the logistics and delicate connective tissue of the story to come out with something that still has all the essential ingredients intact. However, the overwhelming impression is that this is less their film than that of novelist J.K. Rowling – the world of "Harry Potter" the movie is very much the same as the world in Rowling’s novels.
As even most Muggles (that’s non-magical folk) know, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is an English orphan living with disdainful relatives. On his 11th birthday, Harry learns that he’s actually a wizard who’s hailed in the magical community as the only known survivor of an attack by evil Voldemort, who killed Harry’s parents. Despite resistance by his aunt and uncle, who want nothing to do with the supernatural, Harry is sent to school at Hogwarts. There he makes friends with loyal, poor Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and smart, bossy Hermione (Emma Watson). The three children stumble onto a dangerous mystery that seems to be connected to Voldemort, who may still be trying to kill Harry.
Columbus maintains a sense of true wonder throughout. Harry’s thrill of discovery at each new turn of the magical world isn’t overdone – for one thing, the pace is too brisk to allow time for overstatement (except by the music score – more about that in a moment). Kloves’ script does some necessary condensing, but the film is still packed with incident. The film runs 152 minutes – sensibly presented in 35 chapters on the DVD – and by the time we arrive at Hogwarts in Chapter 11, Harry has already been delivered as an infant to his aunt and uncle’s doorstep, conversed with a snake at the zoo, kindly giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) has made his imposing entrance, we’ve visited magical shopping zone Diagon Alley, we’ve learned the secret of train station Platform 9 _ and met Ron and Hermione. Columbus skillfully paces all of this so that we have time to absorb everything without dwelling on any one aspect. Like magic, this is harder than it looks.
Stuart Craig’s production design warrants special praise, borrowing from popular concepts of enchanted realms to make Diagon Alley exactly what most people will have envisioned when reading the book. His rendition of Hogwarts surpasses any reasonable expectations of the place – when the lantern-lit boats set off across the moonlit lake to Hogwarts Castle in Chapter 11 in a symphony of beautifully-rendered charcoal grays and golds, the shot is breathtaking. The Great Hall, introduced in Chapter 12, with its night-sky ceiling, floating candles and flocks of mail-delivering owls, is a creation that perfectly fulfills the promise of once-upon-a-time without making Harry’s (and our) contemporary nature seem out of place.
On the big screen, "Harry" had two noticeable flaws. John Williams’ score hypes every emotion to the point of becoming downright interfering in places. On the DVD, the music is mixed sensitively, so that at least it doesn’t swamp the dialogue and ambient sound effects (although it does insist on constantly telling us what we should be feeling).
There’s a slightly old-fashioned look to some of the CGI shots, especially in the Chapter 19 Quidditch game. Quidditch is a sport conducted in midair by students (including Harry) flying on broomsticks. The players often do not appear to be sharing an environment with the background, but Columbus makes the game – and Harry’s enthusiasm for it – so appealing that we can largely accept the way it looks and proceed to cheer on Harry’s team.
On the other hand, visual effects involving the sets are truly magical and the 5.1 soundtrack is consistently engrossing and textured. Chapter 1 provides us with a full, sputtering motorcycle sound as an enchanted vehicle barrels down from the sky. In Chapter 3, as a suburban neighborhood fills up with a flock of owls, the mains and rears carry splendid directional hoots and flapping wings, setting us in the middle of the quietly circling birds. In Chapter 5, a brick wall rearranges itself, and the mains give us the appropriate left-right-left grinding sounds, following the action of the onscreen objects. It’s a good idea to take note of which brick gets tapped first if you’re thinking of playing with the special features on Disc 2. Chapter 18 has wonderful resonance around the spoken word, "Silence!", followed by a gratifying ambient quiet that places us easily in the middle of a full but hushed crowded room. Chapter 19 provides excellent audio on the Quidditch match, with flying brooms swooshing past us from mains to rears and back again. Chapter 24 has an amusing but dimension-providing effect when a bit of glass shatters in the right rear as it’s struck by a shard of dragon egg that’s just broken in the center and mains. Chapter 28 has more delightfully spooky surround effects as Harry and Co. are surrounded by a flock of small objects that whiz past and around on blurring wings and Chapter 31 has very creditable surrounding crackle and hiss as we’re threatened on all sides by fire.
Radcliffe is engagingly natural and the rest of the cast are ideally matched to their roles, especially Alan Rickman as Snape, a sinister teacher at the school, who conducts himself like an irate Hamlet.
The special features get their own disc, with the exception of a pair of trailers on Disc 1 – the "cast and crew" mentioned in the first disc’s special features turns out to be a list of credits, unless there’s some Easter Egg function that unlocks more. (If your patience with this type of thing is like mine, you’ll die in ignorance.) The second disc is designed as a bit of a game – certain features won’t allow you access until you’ve completed other tasks, and the narration scolds you a little if you make errors. The three-dimensional tours of various areas of Hogwarts are fun, and a visit to the library eventually leads you to production design sketches. Cast and crew interviews are bound together in an enjoyable documentary.
For those parents who somehow missed "Harry" in the theatres – there’s nothing here to worry about for older children, but easily scared very little ones may be alarmed by fantasy violence that’s similar in places to scenes in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," with lots of close calls for the good guys, disintegration for a baddie and themes of parental loss.
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone" demonstrates the joys to be found when filmmakers trust the book they’re adapting and get it just right.