Harry Plodder

The movie may be faithful to the book, but it's more a Muggle than a wizard

November 16, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

On its own modest, illustrated-classic terms, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone has many brushstrokes to admire and enjoy. I especially liked the messenger owls - every time they flocked on screen to deliver mail, or Harry's own snow owl Hedwig floated in to lend him some companionship, my heart soared like a hawk.

And because the picture is faithful to J.K. Rowling's book, the first in her series about the coming-of-age of a boy wizard, multitudes may experience it as a pleasant addition to their reading experience. (Certainly there's nothing indelible enough to get in the way of their reading experience.) The movie boasts deluxe sets, a prestigious and well-chosen cast, a cunning compression of an incident-packed novel, and effects that range from a clunky giant chess match and an ill-conceived centaur to a wonderful re-creation of the goblin-managed Gringotts Bank. All it lacks are the crucial things an inspired director could have provided: spark, soul and magic.

What's wonderful about the book is that it pulls you into an alternate universe before you even know the author has been tugging at your sleeve. Rowling has a sportive way with the fantasy of wizards and witches existing just beyond the ken of non-magical Muggles. It's as if she's playing a game with more eddying moves than the wizards' beloved Quidditch, that risky blend of broomstick polo, basketball and soccer. You start reading and almost simultaneously think "What's that?" - as early as line 48, when a cat is reading a map. And the feeling of quizzical wonder doesn't end with the closing of the book, because you know more questions and answers are sure to follow in the next volume.

Rowling balances humor and pathos as she tells the story of a scrawny, bespectacled orphan who, on his 11th birthday, finds that his abusive Muggle guardians - Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon (who spoil his porcine cousin Dudley rotten) - have been hiding his real identity from him.

He's not the sole survivor of a car crash, but a hero. Even as an infant, he resisted the deadly powers of the evil sorcerer Lord Voldemort, who killed his wizard parents and left Harry with a lightning-bolt scar. And now the time has come for his proper education - which to his Muggle keepers is wildly improper.

Only with the help of the amiable giant Hagrid can Harry make his way to London's wizard's walk, Diagon Alley, and then to the institution where Hagrid is keeper of the keys and grounds: Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. En route, Harry meets young friends like redheaded scamp Ron Weasley and lovable know-it-all Hermione; when he gets there he meets old ones like wily headmaster Albus Dumbledore and strict yet sympathetic Professor McGonagall. He also becomes involved in a mystery that could determine the fate of the entire wizard world.

The saga's comedy-streaked poignancy and its Oliver Twist-meets-David Copperfield flavor have caused Rowling to be dubbed "Dickensian." Yet what's most Dickensian about her is her euphoria-inducing cascade of verbal and dramatic invention and the slapstick poetry of her language.

The movie has no rhyme and too much reason: Director Chris Columbus stolidly lays out the story, block by block. You can see how the script could have worked with a director who knew how to bring resonance both to offhand comments and slashing combat (like Spielberg in his youth). Every time someone in the wizard world recognizes Harry, it should be at once a delight and a discomfiting harbinger of doom. Every time Harry encounters a new wonder or creature, whether a centaur, a troll, or a three-headed dog named Fluffy, the experience should tingle his newly formed spine.

Because the wizard world busily defines itself around Harry just as he defines himself in it, there should be something inevitable as well as surprising about his pursuit of the all-powerful Sorcerer's Stone. The way Columbus lets things play out, there simply isn't. Those who haven't read the book will wonder why the how-to-be-a-wizard story gives way to a clotted mystery about evil doings at Hogwarts.

At the start, watching the movie is like seeing an overly cautious butler prepare for a splendid meal. But then there are promising flurries of suave effects (Harry talking to a snake at the zoo) and just-right inventions (owls swarming in front of Harry's Muggle household). When Hagrid takes Harry to London and Diagon Alley, the director appears to hit his stride. Or maybe he hits Hagrid's stride: Robbie Coltrane is the ideal giant, as hearty as he is tall and hairy, and Columbus even uses his camera wittily, viewing Hagrid from Harry's point of view, standing straight among the crooked streetfronts.

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