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"HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE"
(2001) (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Adventure: An 11-year-old boy has various adventures as he spends a year at a boarding school for sorcerers after learning that he's a wizard.
PLOT:
Harry Potter (DANIEL RADCLIFFE) is an 11-year-old boy who's forced to live under the stairs in the home of his mean-spirited aunt and uncle, Vernon (RICHARD GRIFFITHS) and Petunia Dursley (FIONA SHAW) and their spoiled son, Dudley (HARRY MELLING). Told that his parents died in a car crash when he was an infant, Harry has never known the love of family, and is mistreated by his relatives who seem suspicious of him and his abilities.

In reality, Harry is a wizard who was placed in the home by Professor Dumbledore (RICHARD HARRIS) and Professor McGonagall (MAGGIE SMITH). They are two veteran wizards who run Hogwarts, a boarding school for sorcerers, and initially wanted to keep the boy away from the evil wizard Voldemort who killed his parents.

Now, however, the time has come for Harry to attend Hogwarts, so Rubeus Hagrid (ROBBIE COLTRANE), the school's giant groundskeeper, retrieves the boy, equips him with everything he'll need for his new education, and sends him off. En route to Hogwarts, Harry meets other new students including Ron Weasley (RUPERT GRINT) and Hermione Granger (EMMA WATSON), and the three quickly become fast friends.

Upon their arrival, the three meet other students, such as elitist Draco Malfoy (TOM FELTON), and learn the rules of the school as they're assigned to one of Hogwarts' four schools. As they attend various classes and activities taught by the likes of Professor Snape (ALAN RICKMAN), Professor Quirrell (IAN HART) and Madam Hooch (ZOň WANAMAKER) and meet the schools' various oddities such as the ghostly Nearly Headless Nick (JOHN CLEESE), the kids learn more about the school and how to perform magic.

While doing so, Harry and his friends become suspicious of some mysterious occurrences and behavior. That all leads up to them learning about the Sorcerer's Stone, a small rock with magical powers that can turn any metal into gold and creates the elixir of life that insures immortality. As the three dig deeper into the mystery, they must deal with various adventures and menacing figures, all while trying to get through their first year at Hogwarts.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
While death and taxes are a 100% certainty - at least in our lifetime - other occurrences, also known as "sure things," might not have money back, satisfaction guarantees that they'll happen, but it's a good bet they will. If you live in Minnesota, you can safely assume it's going to be cold and snowy in the winter, while one can rest assured that Wal-Mart is likely to be around for a long time.

The same holds true for movies, and the latest sure thing in regards to the industry is the highly anticipated release of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Based on the first installment of J.K. Rowling's mega-popular Harry Potter series of novels, the film is being so hyped and is opening on so many screens that it's certain to be a huge box office success. Yet, a financial "sure thing" doesn't necessarily ensure that it's going to be critical success, especially when filmdom is littered with other anticipated adaptations of literary works that didn't live up to expectations or turned out to be quite awful.

To ease the fears of anyone now thinking this one has followed that disastrous route, rest assured that it's not horrible, awful or certain to disappoint the legions of young fans eagerly waiting to see it. That said, it's nothing fantastic either, but rather comes off as a decent and imaginatively and handsomely staged kids film.

At this point, I must confess that I have not read any of the Potter novels, but have talked to enough people who have to get a sense of both how the film has adapted the story and otherwise stands on its own for those not terribly familiar with it.

According to those readers, the film is a rather faithful adaptation of the first story, only changing or jettisoning a few elements and/or characters. Accordingly, fans of the work - especially younger ones - will probably love how director Chris Columbus ("Bicentennial Man," "Home Alone") and screenwriter Steve Kloves ("Wonder Boys," "Flesh and Bone") and the rest of the crew and cast have faithfully re-created the characters and settings and brought them both to life.

The production design and special effects - courtesy of Stuart Craig ("The English Patient," "The Legend of Bagger Vance") and Rob Legato ("Titanic," "Apollo 13") respectively -- are both first rate. They should be with a reported budget north of $125 million, and they perfectly create the complex fantasy world Rowling first envisioned. Fans of the work will enjoy recognizing the various characters, creatures and escapades from the book as they're meticulously trotted out here, one after another.

That doesn't mean it will be difficult for the uninitiated to follow what occurs, as everything is pretty much straightforward and easy enough to follow. There are a few problems with how it's all presented, however, and it's unclear whether they're a fault of Rowling, Columbus or both storytellers.

First, while most of the characters and events have obviously been carefully visualized, they occasionally feel like standalone presentation pieces assembled in a "Here's the next element from the novel, carefully presented for your viewing pleasure, appreciation and acceptance." Accordingly, they often feel disjointed and/or episodic, with some of them going nowhere and doing nothing for the story, thus interrupting the narrative flow.

Then there's the fact that the basic underlying story isn't anything particularly special. Sure, the details are fabulous and Rowling obviously invested a lot of time, effort and imagination in creating this complex universe. Yet, the basic plot - Harry learns he's a wizard, goes off to boarding school and has various adventures before uncovering a conspiracy of sorts - isn't anything special and lacks the magic that oozes forth from all of the surrounding details and visuals.

It's the equivalent of going to a fabulous fireworks show that may be visually impressive and initially wows the viewer, but ultimately suffers a bit from having no soul. Viewers will probably be awed by the detail on display here, but shouldn't confuse that with being swept away by the story itself, something that isn't likely to occur.

It probably doesn't help that Rowling and/or Columbus went on a bit of a borrowing spree from other films - particularly those in the "Star Wars" series - in fashioning both the story and some visual effects. One needn't be a wizard to see the obvious comparisons between Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker. Both live with their relatives who try to suppress their innate force/magic - of which the young protagonists are initially unaware - and are later trained to summon that by older mentors, all while encountering odd beings and adventurous escapades.

Then there's the bad Jedi Knight/Wizard who wants to destroy the young upstart - after "killing" the parent - for fearing of them becoming too powerful. There are also scenes obviously inspired by George Lucas' work including the Quidditch broomstick flying sequence from the forest speeder scene in "Return of the Jedi" and the pod race one in "Episode One," while the Devil's Snare scene will remind many viewers of the trash room sequence in "Star Wars" where characters are grabbed and pulled down by various tentacles.

I won't even get into the whole element lifted from "Total Recall" where a previously unseen character's location is eventually disclosed other than to say that Paul Verhoeven and/or the estate of sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick should be demanding some royalties for stealing the imaginative revelation.

Those complaints aside, the film has some wonderful standalone moments, including a fun, darkish opening that may remind some viewers of a similar quality found in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (the spoiled kid element probably helps in that). The score by composer John Williams ("Saving Private Ryan," "The Witches of Eastwick") - while occasionally a bit loud and/or heavy-handed in driving home the emotional quality of certain scenes - is also moderately enjoyable.

Much has been made about the casting of the film and the filmmakers sticking with an English cast to play the English characters. For the most part, the resultant performances are quite good. As the title character, Daniel Radcliffe ("The Tailor of Panama") nails down the look, but is somewhat limited by character development, acting range and/or direction in making the character pop off the screen and/or be as appealing as he should be (most of the time he's limited to appropriate, but ultimately boring wide-eyed expressions to everything that occurs). I also would have expected more mischievous doings on the character's part, but that might have bucked what occurred in the novel.

Faring much better are newcomers Rupert Grint and Emma Watson who deliver delightfully fun and entertaining takes on the protagonist's best friends and fellow wizards in training. Although there are plenty of other child characters, Tom Felton ("Anna and the King," "The Borrowers") gets the only other substantial part, but he's played for too simplistically and the character doesn't have as much impact as he initially seems he might (and perhaps occurred in the novel).

As far as the adult performers are concerned, Richard Harris ("Gladiator," "Camelot"), Maggie Smith ("Tea With Mussolini," "A Room With a View") and Robbie Coltrane ("Goldeneye," "Message in a Bottle") are all good in their respective roles, even if Harris' character isn't as actively involved in mentoring the young wizard as one would expect.

Ian Hart ("Backbeat," "Michael Collins"), ZoŽ Wanamaker ("Swept From the Sea," "Wilde") and Alan Rickman ("Galaxy Quest," "Die Hard") are all also decent, but Rickman's character is portrayed a bit too menacingly not to realize what's really going on. Other performers and their characters, such as John Cleese ("The World is Not Enough," "A Fish Called Wanda") as the ghost Nearly Headless Nick, end up not amounting to much and easily could have been jettisoned with no ill effect on the overall story.

Other parts of the picture feel the same way, as it's a bit long at around two and a half hours, especially for a film aimed at kids. Yet, despite the length, it feels like there needs to be more substance to tie all of the individual scenes together, as well as a bit more humor. In addition, while a great deal of the novel has been faithfully brought to the big screen, the glue holding all of it together and that is necessary for a truly magical experience - whether present in the novel or not - isn't around.

The result is a film that's nothing short of amazing from a visual standpoint - what with all of the fun, amusing and imaginative details - but isn't quite there from a storytelling perspective. Good, but not great and clearly not as entertaining or enjoyable as "Shrek" or the "Toy Story" films, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 11, 2001 / Posted November 16, 2001


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