THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Like millions of people all over the world, I have read one of J.K. Rowling's insanely popular "Harry Potter" novels. I read the first book simply to find out what the phenomenon was all about. Although I was not converted into any kind of Harry Potter fanatic, I enjoyed the book very much and understood why so many people were so passionate about it. I won't be able to say the same of Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone, the first of several planned big screen adaptations. To my great surprise, this movie falls flat on its face.

Three young wizards play a lifesize game of chess in Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone
If there is anyone left who doesn't know, this is the story of young Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) who was abandoned on a doorstep and raised by the hideous Dursleys. His escape from the cruel family comes via an invitation to study at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry is surprised - he doesn't know he's a wizard, much less a famous one - but the offer is too good to refuse. Once at the school, he meets a variety of offbeat characters. They include: two other students, the fastidious Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and the meek Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint); a friendly giant named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane); legendary wizard and Hogwarts headmaster Professor Dumbledore (Richard Harris); and the suspicious Professor Snape (Alan Rickman).

The first year of study is difficult, in part because there is so much to learn. Harry struggles to master broom riding, spell casting, and the famous game of Quidditch. (The game was one of the highlights of the book, and it remains one of the few bright spots in the film.) It does not take Potter long to realize that things are not as they seem at Hogwarts. There is a mystery involving something known as the Sorcerer's Stone, which is in peril of falling into the wrong hands. If this occurs, it could spell trouble for the school.

Okay, I'm being lazy in my plot encapusation of this movie, but that's only because so many people have read the book that it's probably redundant to go into too much detail.

Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone is an unusual adaptation in that it remains incredibly faithful to Rowlings' novel, yet is vastly inferior to it. The early scenes are lively enough, filled with the kind of whimsical humor that appealed to readers. I liked the scene in which determined owls keep trying to deliver letters to Harry Potter, as well as the scene in which he tries to find the right train platform that will take him to Hogwarts.

Some of the performances are good, too. All the kids are perfectly cast in their roles and convincingly inhabit the film's fantasy world. Robbie Coltrane is terrific as Hagrid, who has a tendency to realize he has said the wrong thing a second after he has already said it. A character like that is usually a scene stealer, but Coltrane is a pro who makes an impression without feeling the need to walk off with the picture. A number of other famous British actors, from John Cleese to Maggie Smith to John Hurt, also appear in smaller roles and all of them perform admirably.

The simple problem with Harry Potter is the fact that, aside from a strong start, it's a crushing bore. Director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) has never been known for his subtlety. This time around, he adapts the novel so faithfully that all the life has been sucked out. By this, I don't mean to imply that he should have changed the story in any way; I simply mean he should have been more creative with his adaptation. The result is similar to a paint-by-numbers drawing of the Mona Lisa - it looks the same, but there's no doubt it wasn't done by da Vinci. Rowlings' amusing sense of prose has been replaced by sledgehammer direction. Some have compared the movie to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and The Wizard of Oz. Those pictures were also based on popular children's novels, but the big screen versions added life through their imaginative visuals and quirky styles. Harry Potter, on the other hand, has blandly familiar computer-generated effects and a slavish quality that drains any surprise.

The reason I was so annoyed by the movie's approach is simple: there's no sense of wonder. It's all too obvious that Columbus and company knew they were sitting on a gold mine. The Potter books are so successful that any film version was bound to be a box office smash. So rather than investing the movie with creativity or imagination, the filmmakers have cranked out a generic assemblyline blockbuster. It simply didn't work for me. With a running time of over two-and-a-half hours, I was quickly worn down. In fact, I looked at my watch every ten minutes, absolutely certain that more time had to have passed. Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone is destined to be one of the biggest hits of all time. Does it deserve to be? I would argue no. It will capitalize on the current Potter craze, but I doubt people will be watching it twenty years from now. For a movie about magic, there's not much magical about it.

( 1/2 out of four)

Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone is rated PG for mild language and intense images. The running time is 2 hours and 34 minutes.
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