Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Daniel Radcliffe, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith.
Directed by Chris Columbus.
Running Time: 153 mins
Rated: PG

Hype is a terrible thing, raising expectations that are usually disappointed. Harry Potter is hype's most recent casualty. The first in a quartet of films from JK Rowling's best selling series of novels, screenwriter Steven Kloves has, on the whole, stayed true to the book, and
that's part of the problem.

Harry Potter's (Radcliffe) parents died when he was a baby. Raised by his cruel aunt and uncle, he demonstrates throughout his childhood supernatural gifts. His relatives know he is a wizard. Harry only finds out about this on his 11th birthday when he is offered a place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. At school, while leaning his magical techniques, Harry discovers that his parents were not killed in a car accident, as he was told, but were murdered by the evil wizard, Lord Valdermort. With classmates Hermonie (Emma Waters) and Ron (Rupert Grint), Harry confronts Valdemort and avenges his parents' death.

Warner Brothers ploughed $130 million into this production and it's a visual feast. The many familiar UK locations, art direction and set designs are all a triumph. Stuart Craig has won Oscars for his production designs on Gandhi, The English Patient and Dangerous Liaisons. He should be preparing his acceptance speech for next year's Oscars now. The lighting
is appropriately atmospheric and the costume department had a field day coming up with some of their creations. As befits a tale about magic, there are terrific special effects and, true to the book, a violent battle takes place on an animated life-size chessboard.

But there are several disappointments with Harry Potter. The first is the acting. In recent years we have seen some outstanding child actors emerge from the USA and, while Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Waters and Rupert Grint have some good moments, they don't hold a candle to their colleagues in California. The adults have less developed characters in the book and the screenplay, but Robbie Coltrane as the affectionate giant, Hagrid, is the best by far. Like most of the cast, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman and Richard Harris are directed to give good old-fashioned pantomime performances. There are British film stars everywhere in Harry Potter including John Cleese, Julie Walters and John Hurt. Each of these three are on the screen for less than two minutes.

The major problem with Harry Potter is that American director Chris Columbus and his writer, fellow American Steven Kloves, have been enslaved by the book. I am sympathetic to their dilemma as they would be damned if they cut too much out of the original story, but at just over two and half hours, Harry Potter ends up overstaying its welcome. A film is not a book
and this film is a lesson in how reverential adaptations can be tedious. This film doesn't capture the light touch and the cynical wit in Rowling's book. John William's wall-to-wall music is far too big and self-important for the story on the screen. Indeed, the sound design, generally, is very busy and extremely loud. The blasts and roars on the sound track will
frighten young children and more than a few adults.

There has been some discussion about how Rowling's books promote witchcraft. This criticism misses the wood for the trees. Rowling and Kloves enter the rich world of a child's imagination and teach some wonderful lessons about sportsmanship, generosity, friendship, loyalty and the importance of study. It condemns violence, cheating and lying. If fictional stories of wizards and magic turned their childhood readers and hearers into adult occult worshippers, then most if us would have ended up in such groups. Harry is a good wizard fighting the powers of evil. This story is a vivid parable about the forces of light and dark.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is set to enter the top ten biggest box office films of all time. This will be another win for hype over substance, but we have a further three films to see if they can get it right.

Richard Leonard SJ

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