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Sam North and Chris Lean review the first film in the Potter saga.

Starring: Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, John Cleese, Warwick Davis, Julie Walters, Ian Hart.
Directed By: Chris Columbus
Production Company: Warner Brothers Distribution
Nov 19th: Harry Potter breaks box office records worldwide. UK £16 million, almost doubling Star Wars Episode1 record (first three days) and in the USA $68 million in the first three days of release.


It’s ok, we can all breathe a sigh of relief! The movie version of J. K. Rowling’s first ‘Harry Potter’ novel is good…really good.
When plans for a film version of Rowling’s massively successful children’s story were first announced, many dissenting voices claimed that a movie would ruin the magic of the original idea. In fact, anyone who reads Harry Potter will know that this is a concept that absolutely begs to be placed on to the big screen. Thankfully, and largely owing to J. K. Rowling’s close involvement with the development of the film, Warner Bros. has delivered a movie that sticks remarkably close to the original book, both in terms of plot and the spirit of the story.
For those who have not yet been inducted into the strange world of Harry Potter, it tells the story of a boy who, after being orphaned as a baby, is brought up by his cruel aunt and uncle. Little does he know that he is in fact the son of a wizard and witch and is destined to enrol at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to learn about the magical arts. The plot is surprisingly complicated and involves a whole host of extraordinary characters, some wise, some hilariously funny and some downright evil. However, there is a distinctively quirky quality throughout and an infectious sense of wonder and imagination that has been very effectively transferred onto the screen for cinema audiences.

This is, of course, a children’s film, but Harry Potter has an extraordinary ability to bring out the child in everyone who comes across him. At the screening that this reviewer attended, the number of grown-ups massively outweighed the number of kids, and many of those came dressed as wizards or had lightning shaped scars drawn on to their foreheads. The grown-up audience loved it. I loved it, and I was there to be a critic! The target audience will love it even more than we did.

Director Chris Columbus, who previously brought us the delights of Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire, has probably reached the high-point of his career with this movie. He handles the material with a sure touch and clearly enjoys bringing to life some of the quirkiest little tit-bits from the novel, such as the sorting hat, the moving portraits on the walls of Hogwarts and the wacky ghosts that wander the school corridors, popping out of walls at unexpected moments to provide extra light relief. His visualisation of the world of Harry Potter is as close to perfect as any fan of the books could hope for, and this is helped by some of the most inspired casting we have seen for a long time.

The three central child characters - Harry, Ron and Hermione - are all played with great enthusiasm by Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson respectively. However, Miss Watson just wins by a nose in the acting stakes with her hilariously precocious performance. Robbie Coltrane was J. K. Rowling’s first choice to play Rubeus Hagrid and it is a role he seems to have been born to play. The character is essentially Robbie Coltrane with a beard. He proves to be the most entertaining character in the movie. Other great casting coups have placed Richard Harris in the role of wise old Professor Dumbledore, the principal of Hogwarts, Maggie Smith as the fuss-pot Professor McGonagall and, best of all, a spot-on Alan Rickman as the nasty Professor Severus Snape (think Sheriff of Nottingham with magic powers!).

While the trailers gave us a taste of what to expect, Warners have saved some very special stuff for the movie itself. This is a film in which mountain trolls, goblins, centaurs and even dragons appear alongside the human actors. The highlight of the movie is the Hogwart’s Quidditch match, a game played in mid-air on broomsticks which is brought to life in what is easily the most thrilling visual effects sequence of the year. One of the real joys of this movie is that it is never ruled by special effects. All the effects are there to further the story and, unlike those in spectacular turkeys like Pearl Harbor, they are all the more enjoyable for it. In this movie we aren’t simply blown-away by the expensive visuals, we genuinely want Harry Potter to win the Quidditch match!

The film isn’t perfect. Some parts of the story are abridged in a clumsy manner that makes the plot slightly less coherent than it was in the book. One of the most poignant scenes in the novel, in which Hagrid and the children meet a group of Centaurs in the forbidden forest, is shorn of most of its original significance. For some reason, the screenwriter often chooses to ignore the perfectly decent dialogue that Rowling provided in her novel and offers us something a little more bland instead. Nevertheless, the script remains genuinely faithful to the original story and the whole affair is injected with such an enjoyable strain of mystery and fun that you can easily forgive the movie its imperfections.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has been more hyped than practically any other movie this year. I’m happy to report that, for a change, this is a film that lives up to its own hype - just about. It may not achieve the classic status of the book that originally inspired it but it is completely engaging from start to finish and weaves more than enough magic to satisfy lovers of the novel. It will definitely surpass the expectations of kids everywhere, who will all be hollering for more. I’m not a betting man but I would be surprised if this movie didn’t rake in enough dough to warrant a high place in the top five most successful movies ever. Whatever happens, this is certain to be VERY big. Let’s just hope Daniel Radcliffe’s voice doesn’t break before they shoot part two.

© Chris Lean 2001


Take one small boy, orphaned, of course, give him to evil stepparents who will make him grow up under the stairs, add one incredibly smart young girl, a hairy giant, several wizards and kindly witches, mix in some dragons blood and a ginger nut and place on the screen for 152 minutes and simmer gently.
Result HARRY POTTER and the PHILOSPHER’S STONE. (Sorcerer's Stone in the USA)

Judging by the kids who’d dragged their parents along for the preview, it was a resounding success. Everyone looked just right and for the curious odd person who hasn’t actually read the book, this will be a doubly wonderful surprise to come across these characters for the first time.

It was great to hear eight year olds turning to bewildered fathers at the end of the film and saying ‘Did you understand it?’ Then going into wonderful lengthy explanations about life at Hogwarts. (Harry’s wizard school) If there was any complaint about the long running screen time is was that it wasn’t long enough and to be honest, so much has been left out. But that won’t deter the kids coming back to see it again and waiting anxiously for part two in a year’s time.

The look and feel was just right, but perhaps Chris Columbus the director played it just too safe, the film lacked any menace that truly does exist in the book. Thankfully there were not too much of the Dursleys at the beginning, but one missed the crying ghost in the loo, the suspicions and nightmarish atmosphere that is often present in J.K. Rowling’s books. Other little things seem to be missing as well, the awkwardness of remembering passwords to get back into the dorms after sneaking out, the difficult lessons, the strange quirky teachers, the day to day school life. In this film Harry Potter doesn’t really do any magic (other than fly) and quite the funniest moments are when the teaching goes wrong and things explode. The Quidditch match was spectacular and the flying fun, but you never really felt the danger. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm was quite believable and one worries about many kids trying to copy them from bedroom windows.

Hagrid is huge and that is pretty good considering we know Robbie Coltrane isn’t a giant. Hagrid is used as a plot steamroller. Anytime Harry and his pals Don (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) don’t know anything Hagrid lets the cat out of the bag ( Oh dear, I shouldn’t have said that…) becomes the films catch phrase, but detracts from the detection that was present in the book. J.K Rowling’s vision has been respected but the result (from an adults perspective is rather anodyne). She has got her British cast and they do everything that is required of them. Prof Snape is truly sinister (Alan Rickman with his custom sneer) Richard Harris is well, himself , Maggie Smith is born to play schoolmarms, John Cleese is completely wasted as a ghost and there is none of the interaction with the ghosts that there is in the books. I realise that these are quibbles and how could you fit everything into the film that was in the book. Just how long will the fourth Harry Potter film be if this one is two and half hours?

The film is very British prep school, very much Tom Brown meets Scooby Doo and it is fun and one thing is absolutely certain, Emma Watson as Hermione steals the film. She is funny and bright in contrast to Harry who looks right is personable, but lacks character somehow. Ron, his best pal is quite convincing, but Daniel Radcliffe isn’t really allowed to suffer or react or cry or cramp up, in short he might be special but he doesn’t feel anything. The moment when he confronts Voldmort who has killed a Unicorn and sucked it’s blood to stay alive should be earth shattering for him and us. But Chris Columbus backs off and it becomes bland with the Centaur explaining too much. Better to have let Harry see how cruel his new world really is and worry about frightening the kids in the multiplex later. The tragic moment of the mother’s death in Bambi lives with you forever, Harry Potter shies away from pain and more's the pity.

Why take it all so seriously? Well because, readers, just like the writer J.K. Rowling, are very protective of the books and characters they like and I am no different. I wanted a darker Potter movie, but I’ll accept the one I have. It is sad too that once again we have a British story, wonderful British cast, filmed in Gloucestershire but with American money. Have we no guts at all? Can't our film financiers see a good thing when it bangs them on the head? Harry Potter is likely to generate billions of dollars and it will all go back to Hollywood. Our considerable loss.

Christ Columbus has given us a seamless, energetic movie that will be critic proof and you will go to see it, but it you want something darker, a little more edgy look across to the other side of the multiplex this weekend and see ‘Ghost World’ starring Thora Birch…'oh I shouldn’t have told you that.’

© Sam North 2001

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