Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the much-anticipated film adaptation of the first of the J.K. Rowling literary blockbusters, is the ultimate example of Hollywood playing it safe to ensure maximum monetary returns. It is well acted, beautifully shot and moves along relatively quickly despite its 153-minute running time, but overall it lacks the magic, creativity and sense of fun needed to really be something special.
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is a boy who learns on his eleventh birthday that he is the orphaned son of two powerful wizards and possesses unique magical powers of his own. He is summoned from his life as an unwanted child among the “Muggles” (non-wizards) to become a student at Hogwarts, an English boarding school for wizards. There, he meets Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), two fellow students who become his closest allies and help him discover the truth about his parents’ mysterious deaths at the hands of a powerful adversary.
I haven’t read the novels as of yet, but from what I was told by someone who had, the filmmakers came pretty close to fitting everything into this film, omitting only the slightest bits here and there. Normally, this is a good thing. As we all know, far too many movies destroy books in the name of commerce (Remember Bonfire Of the Vanities?). But for us Cine-Muggles (those who have not read the books), I think being too loyal may be a blessing to fans and a hindrance to the rest of us.
For a film chock full of fantasy and imagination, the energy level is rather subdued. The film possesses the aura that director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steven Kloves were afraid to stray even one bit from Rowling’s novel. Columbus’ helming shows little if any creative juice and seems to be stuck on autopilot (given that he directed such winners as Bicentennial Man and Mrs. Doubtfire, this might not be such a bad thing). Columbus’ directing is a textbook example of Hollywood hackwork: hardly terrible, yet so very ordinary. One can only begin to imagine what this film would have been like if a true visionary like Terry Gilliam (who was in the running to direct) or Steven Spielberg had been around to call the shots.
As for Kloves’ screenplay, the story is lacking the crucial emotional juice needed for the viewer to connect to the characters. Once again, fans of the book series may have no problem with this, but for those who are coming into the world of Harry Potter cold, this is a pity. If you’re familiar with Kloves’ previous screen work (The Fabulous Baker Boys, Wonder Boys), then you know what he is capable of doing when he is allowed to.
Newcomer Daniel Radcliffe is quite good as our bespectacled hero, but his young co-stars make more of an impression. Grint is quite amusing as Ron and Emma Watson is terrific as the take-charge Hermione. As for the grown-ups in the cast, Robbie Coltrane turns in the most memorable performance as Hagrid, the gentle giant who befriends the kids. Richard Harris as headmaster Dumbledore, Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, Alan Rickman as the creepy Professor Snape and Ian Hart as Professor Quirrell all lend the production a nice degree of thespian class.
On the technical front, the results range from good to just okay (I guess $125 million really doesn’t buy what you expect these days). John Williams’ score is good but never seems to let up. John Seale’s cinematography is brooding and atmospheric as is Stuart Craig’s excellent production design. The visual effects, alas, are all over the map. Some are rather nice (I admired Fluffy and the Troll quite a bit) but others are all too obvious, such as the highly-touted set piece the Quidditch match. From my count, there were at least a half-dozen visual effects houses working on this film and unfortunately, not all of them are associated with Industrial Light and Magic.
Had the film studio loosened the creative ties that bind (and picked a better director), this film could have been an ideal fantasy escape for both the loyal Potter fans and Cine-Muggles like myself. Instead, they chose to play it safe.
Of course, with 100 million copies of the books sold worldwide, I would probably do the same.