Friday, November 23, 2001
Movie Review Have you been Potterized?
Lines snake around the velvet ropes, and if you look closely, you'll see a number of people, especially the shorter ones, with lightning-bolt markings on their foreheads. Many wear long black capes, glitter catches the light, and even a few wands are visible. Five minutes after the doors to the theater open, every seat is taken. Everybody fidgets through the endless previews-of-coming-attractions, and then the whole room breaks out in wild applause: Harry Potter is here at last!
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: just about everybody has heard of it, and what is more, it seems as if nearly everybody has read it too.
Does the movie do justice to the book? As much as any movie can do justice to a good book. This one tries to be so faithful to its source that there are a few moments in its two-and-a-half-hours that go a little flat. But only a few. Production values are excellent. Scenery is lush and whimsical: candles suspended from nothing in the Great Hall of Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry light long trestle tables overloaded with all the food children like to eat. Ghosts and owls fly in and out, and the school itself is a foreboding castle full of portraits that come to life, creaky stone staircases that change direction, and plenty of secret chambers. Diagon Alley, where young witches and wizards buy school supplies, looks like the 12th-century Shambles marketplace in York, England: medieval, tiny, and as crooked as the house that Jack built. Costumes, by Diana Makovsky, are just as facetious: under her witch's faculty robe, flying teacher and Quidditch referee Madam Hooch (Zoë Wanamaker) sports an old-fashioned gym suit and motorcycle boots, and Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) adds a tartan to her pointed hat and robe for formal occasions. The score, immediately recognizable as the work of John Williams, carries us along as if we, too, can fly. About a dozen different special-effects teams contributed to the movie, including Jim Henson's Creature Shop. We meet a unicorn, a centaur, a three-headed dog named Fluffy, and we watch a baby dragon hatch from its egg and sneeze, setting our friend Hagrid's (Robbie Coltrane) beard aflame. There is a Quidditch match (a sort of polo-cum-soccer game played on broomsticks high above the spectators) which whizzes and sails around the screen. I wish more of it had been shot from the point of view of the fans below, but it was breathtaking, nevertheless. Most of the effects are computer-generated, but they never overpower the human characters, so this movie never loses its soul.
That is the reason this is a good movie, and the reason it has a good shot at "classic." No matter how many ghosts and mythical creatures romp across the screen, no movie works without a human story. It must first be said that this is a very British story, and no American actors could tell it as skillfully as does this all-British cast. Hogwart's is patterned after the British public school system (which resembles, but does not duplicate, our independent school system). Americans in Hogwart's would be exotic, but inappropriate in the setting. There is a peculiarly British class system. We have our school bullies, but they do not look and act like sneering, but slickly handsome, Draco Malfoy (Tom Fenton). All of the child actors are fine: Rupert Grint as Harry's best friend Ron Weasley is an adroit comedian; Emma Watson, as clever-but-caring overachiever Hermione (pronounced Her-mí-oh-nee) Granger, combines maturity and vulnerability; and Daniel Radcliffe as Harry has the wonder of discovering his special powers just right. He is an understated, nuanced, and sophisticated actor. He looks like a soft-skinned, angular eleven-year-old in need of a mother, which is exactly what Harry is, but watch out: in about four years, Radcliffe will be leaving a wide trail of broken teeny-bopper hearts in his wake.
The adult actors are among the finest in Britain's pantheon today: Maggie Smith, Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore), Alan Rickman (Professor Snape), Fiona Shaw (Aunt Petunia), Ian Hart (Professor Quirrel), Robbie Coltrane, Zoë Wanamaker, John Cleese, and more. My favorite is John Hurt (Caligula, from I, Claudius), whose unflappable Mr. Olivander, the wand-maker, gives Harry the news that the wizarding world expects greatness from him. All of these actors find the kernels of their characters and make us believe everything they do and say. Harry's world becomes more real than our own, which is what happens in the books, isn't it?
So, if your imaginations went in perhaps slightly different directions when you read the books, it matters not. This delightful movie is worth your time no matter how old you are, but you know that. Your kids have told you so.
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito