Thursday, November 15, 2001
Thirty years ago, another wildly popular children's book was given the big-screen treatment. The result was "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," a musical masterpiece that remains one of the most clever, odd and downright disturbing kids flicks ever made.
After just four years since the release of the initial novel in the "Harry Potter" series, author J.K. Rowling ï¿½ like fellow British writer Roald Dahl before her ï¿½ has been sitting on Hollywood's hottest property. But unlike 1971's "Wonka," "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" has an enormous budget ($125 million), and this time Warner Bros. will probably recoup its money within two weeks of release. ("Wonka" tanked at the box-office before becoming a cult hit.)
The story of a misfortunate lad who is thrust into a treacherous world of magical adventures can describe either film. Also, Charlie Bucket and Harry Potter are essentially ultra-normal boys, surrounded by exaggerated characters that represent the best and worst of humanity. But most similarly to its predecessor, "Sorcerer's Stone" is that rare effort that successfully breathes cinematic life into a children's classic.
At 4 Privet Drive in Surrey, England, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) lives in a cupboard under the steps with his Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia, who spend the days lavishing presents and praise on their son Dudley, a spoiled, piggish boy (combining the worst qualities of "Wonka's" Veruca Salt and Augustus Gloop) who constantly torments Harry.
On his eleventh birthday, Harry gets an unexpected invitation to leave his prison-like existence in order to venture to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He learns that his deceased parents were actually magic folk, and he has already inherited many of their skills ï¿½- which explains why he can sometimes speak with reptiles and make random things disappear. In fact, as the giant who is dispatched to escort Harry says, while eyeing the boy's unpleasant adopted family, "you'll make a thumpin' good (wizard), I'd wager ï¿½ once you trade up a little."
So together they purchase some unusual supplies and travel to Hogwarts, where Harry finds new friends in fellow first-year schoolmates Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). He begins to learn the basic ropes of wizardry ï¿½ from spell casting (there's a real trick to that "swish and flick" movement of the wand) to broomstick riding. He also discovers the not-so-pleasant details behind his parents' deaths, and stumbles upon a mysterious possession (guarded by a ferocious three-headed dog) that is the object of ominous forces at the school conspiring to profit from its power.
Arguably the most anticipated movie of the year ï¿½ right up there with the somewhat similarly themed "Lord of the Rings" trilogy ï¿½ "Sorcerer's Stone" is a richly detailed work that rarely disappoints. Even at a rump-numbing 152 minutes, director Chris Columbus ("Home Alone") manages to incorporate enough visual flair and compelling characters to disguise the exposition-heavy nature of the source material.
The film's strict adherence to the book reflects both its strengths and its (minor) weaknesses. The deliberate pacing allows one to savor the mounting details of Rowling's world. This is hardly a Reader's Digest version ï¿½ a solid 45 minutes is devoted to the setup before Harry even sets foot at Hogwarts.
On the flip side, Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves ("Wonder Boys") opt to retain the novel's clunky prologue that introduces Harry as an infant. It would have been much more interesting to start him off as a teen already contending with the Dickensian environment provided by his relatives. Other characters, like the Bloody Baron and centaur Firenze (featuring the movie's most unconvincing use of special effects), seem to be only included out of deference to the novel rather than for the sake of keeping the plot moving.
Surprisingly, the film is even less of a "kids story" than the print edition. Usually when Hollywood gets hold of this type of property, the result is a more sanitized account. But the movie comes across as darker, perhaps already establishing a tone more comparable to the latter books. There are moments of real fear in this PG-rated endeavor, from a creepy forbidden forest to a game with life-sized chess pieces. This particular segment ï¿½ in which Harry, Hermione and Ron must participate in the board game itself and suffer the violent consequences of losing a piece ï¿½ is perhaps the most emblematic of the mood established by the filmmakers and cinematographer John Seale ("The Perfect Storm"). The book treats the scene as a fun mind game. The movie makes it genuinely menacing.
But this is just one of dozens of images that stick with the viewer after leaving the theater. Others include a great hall lit with floating candles; the bustling train station's 9 3/4 platform; an overhead shot of ferries approaching Hogwarts; the magical sorting hat, whose ragged brown folds act as a mouth; the stately wizard's bank Gringott's, where the tiny goblin employees (Oompa Loompa's anyone?) behave like feral accountants; the dozens of paintings whose subjects are constantly moving. ("You can't expect them to hang around all day.")
It's a visual and visionary treat, even if a few elements of the book seem almost impossible to pull off (as in the somewhat stagy Quidditch match ï¿½ a game which combines elements of soccer, cricket and Rollerball, while played on flying broomsticks).
As for the non-digital performers, Radcliffe rises to the occasion in the thankless role of Harry, who basically has to play straight-man in nearly every scene. With his mop-top haircut and circular glasses, the kid comes across as "normal," despite the fact that everyone in the movie either hates him or is perpetually telling him how special he is. It's a tough gig to not be trumped by the omnipresent visual effects, or the fact that the supporting performers (especially the perfectly cast Grint as glum Ron Weasley) get most of the good lines.
Surrounding him are some of the finest British actors in the business, not a one of which is miscast. Of particular note are Oscar-winner Maggie Smith as the stern witch Professor McGonagall, the ever-shifty Alan Rickman scoring the plum role as the sinister Professor Snape and comedian Robbie Coltrane as the dim but reliable giant Hagrid, who repeats the phrase "I shouldn't have told you that" like a mantra.
The only performer who doesn't quite live up to the part is the petite Watson as Hermione, a stubborn young witch with whom Potter eventually allies. The actress is rife with affectation, delivering much of her know-it-all dialogue as if she had been learning it phonetically.
There's no denying that this film marks the rare combination of pop commerce and cinematic artistry. Yet the most important thing that can be said for "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is that it impeccably translates the novel to the screen, keeping intact the vision of the author while crafting a movie that even those unfamiliar with the series will easily be sucked into. Given Hollywood's past track record, that's a fine trick indeed.