- The Washington Times - Friday, November 16, 2001

No doubt, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" will prove hunky-dory for loyal readers of J.K. Rowling, whose series of juvenile adventure novels about the fanciful students and faculty of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are envisioned as a lucrative seven-picture franchise by Warner Bros.

A non-enthusiast, I would be content to call this movie about Harry an orphan attending a prep school for wizards a whimsically ponderous, disillusioning day with "Sorcerer's Stone."

Miss Rowling's stories are clever and readable, but I can't sustain the slightest curiosity about the culture of Hogwarts. Boarding schools always seemed creepy rather than fascinating. Also, the movie exploits the sinister aspects of Hogwarts, essentially a cavernous and spooky haunted-house setting.

Hogwarts isn't teaching anything useful in real life the curriculum ranges from potions to quill-penmanship to broomstick riding rather than from arts and sciences to driver education. The genuine wizards of the modern world are employed inventing new medicines or machines, accounting for the secrets of the physical universe or making movies at Pixar, where the playful and accomplished are splendidly united.

The obviously smitten filmmakers responsible for the first installment of the "Harry Potter" saga may have miscalculated to some extent by being faithful to a literal-minded fault. The old-time environment Miss Rowling creates seems exaggerated in the movie. Hogwarts looks dank, drafty, depressing and pseudo-Victorian, even if hundreds of tapers can be made to levitate in the Great Hall.

Harry, an adolescent Cinderfella embodied very attractively by the unassuming and open-faced Daniel Radcliffe, has plenty of incentive for preferring a Hogwarts exile and education. He lives with a hostile aunt and uncle and spoiled-brat cousin, the Dursleys. Indeed, he has so much incentive to flee their captivity that it is amazing to see him preparing to return to the Dursleys at the end of his first, triumphant term. This was crowned by his protecting a magical amulet, the sorcerer's stone of the title, from a power-mad faculty member.

What prevents Harry from being promptly adopted by the happy family of his new school chum Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), whose siblings are all enthusiastic Hogwartsians? Forgive my ignorance if this happens in a later book. I see no reason to prolong the hateful Dursleys as caricatures or whipping boys. In a similar respect, why dote on headmaster Dumbledore (Richard Harris) when he displays blatant and arbitrary favoritism for Gryffindor, the house that shelters Harry and his friends?

Another special-effects house is needed to perfect such things as the ghosts, which look bilious rather than spectral, and the Quidditch game, a kind of airborne blend of soccer and roller ball. The maladroit interlude in "Harry Potter" keeps blurring and chopping perspectives as the contestants fly around on their broomsticks whacking elusive spheroids.

The most reassuring aspects of the movie are the appeal and staying power of the juvenile players, who grow on you even as the episodes tend to weary you. The personality contrasts between Daniel Radcliffe's Harry, Rupert Grint's Ron and Emma Watson's Hermione are very agreeably delineated, although Miss Watson might be urged to subdue an overly busy mouth while reading lines.

At any rate, the young performers look far, far fresher than the production by the time the film grinds to a fadeout, trailing an overextended running time of 150 minutes. Part of the overage appears to derive from a compulsion to include bits from the first book even if they don't contribute to plot threads that are sustained during the course of the first movie.

Wouldn't readers be patient enough to wait for some things until a second or third installment? It would be fine with me if "Harry Potter" movies rolled around just every two or three years. Expect the frequency to be scaled back if a blockbuster momentum fails to materialize in subsequent weekends.

TITLE: "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

RATING: PG (Frequent ominous atmosphere and illustrative details, menacing episodes and fleeting graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details)

CREDITS: Directed by Chris Columbus; produced by David Heyman; screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling; cinematography by John Seale; production design by Stuart Craig; costume design by Judianna Makovsky; visual effects supervised by Robert Legato; special effects supervised by John Richardson; and music by John Williams.

RUNNING TIME: About 150 minutes


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