Frantically searching for ways to postpone sitting down at the keyboard and trying to find something relatively new to say about the most over-analyzed film and social phenomenon of the year, I idly called up my favorite search engine and typed in harrypotter. The monitor blinked once and then came up with 1,860,000 entries, a life’s work for even the most indefatigable dissertation writer. Surely, it was a mistake, thought I. Another attempt; same result. A second search engine provided no totals, but broke the topic into a dozen subcategories. One provided a link to barnesandnoble.com, which I thought might provide a sense of available merchandise. This too was broken into several subcategories. At this point the computer gagged and flashed its ominous illegal operation warning with its implied threat that the Justice Department, the F.B.I. and I.N.S. would soon be knocking at the door.
Ten-year-olds, being much more skilled than I in Websmanship, would undoubtedly be more successful in measuring the Harry Potter mania. They would probably be better reviewers of the film as well. They could give an honest appraisal of the film and their reactions to it without getting lost in the peripheral issues. Perhaps there is a lesson in that for the reviewing industry.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has provided more copy for the business pages than for the entertainment section. It is one of those films that has generated more interest as an event than a movie. Will it be more successful boxofficewise than Titanic? Will it have legsthat is, will sales hold up after the first few weeks? Can it pull in record fees for cable use next year and networks the year after that? Will it return every Christmas? Is product merchandisingT-shirts, lunchboxes, dolls and soft-drink mugsreally more important for financial success than ticket sales?
Yes, these questions are important, but not here. Let’s calmly acknowledge the fact that the millions of young readers of the four best-selling Harry Potter novels by J. K. Rowling form a ready-made market and that the clever market strategists at Warner Bros. have exploited their opportunities brilliantly. These cold realities chill the hearts of reviewers. Beaten about the head with puffery and saddened at the realization that movies have been reduced to marketing engines, reviewers routinely sharpen their teeth and derisive metaphors before feasting on a leaden omelet like Pearl Harbor.
Harry is no Pearl. It is a delightful, charming film that I probably would have enjoyed even more had I been taken by an enthusiastic 10-year-old Potterite. While the publicity and merchandising have been aggressive, abrasive and obnoxious, the film itself strikes me as remarkably restrained. The director, Chris Columbus, has opted for straightforward narrative and characters that young audiences can appreciate perhaps more than the gray and grumpy Muggles who write reviews. In his earlier films, like Stepmom, the dreadful Home Alone series and Mrs. Doubtfire, the director has shown a Spielbergian fascination with children struggling to survive a harsh adult world by creating their own parallel universe.
Much of the best of children’s literature and film leads its audience into a world of the imagination where young protagonists face terrible threats from their own childishly skewed version of the adult world and survive through their own wits. Alice had Wonderland, Dorothy had Oz, and now Harry has Hogwarts. J. K. Rowling simply and brilliantly recycled and rearranged the pieces; Chris Columbus merely put it up on the screen. Of course, their work is not original in its underlying concept. What genre work is? But it is skillfully executed, according to its predetermined rituals, and that makes it successful, or in this case endearing.
Even though it received blockbuster treatment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone displays ingratiating modesty. For example, at this stage in our evolutionary journey from the trees to the stars, children and filmmakers alike take computer-generated images for granted. The temptation to show off must have been irresistible, but miraculously the production team resisted. Nearly Headless Nick (John Cleese) demonstrates the suitability of his name quite neatly, without gallons of blood. Harry’s private mail service involves a flock of nonunion owls that fly on screen like outtakes from Hitchcock’s The Birds, but both scenes use technology unobtrusively to further the plot, not to show what the special effects people can really do with an unlimited budget. Similarly, the famous game of Quidditch, with apprentice witches and wizards flying around at warp speed in what looks like water polo for astronauts, could have developed into a Star Wars spectacle, but it remains a game with kids flying on broom handles.
With the special effects kept in check and the story familiar to its target audience, Columbus and his crew were able to focus their attention on the characters, who by now must be old friends to pre-teen Potter scholars. The young actors weave the storyline while smaller cameo roles bring a sparkling tapestry to life.
Daniel Radcliffe lets Harry grow gradually into his role as superhero. He is abused by his adoptive parents and their porcine son, but he is far too wise to feel sorry for himself. Once he arrives at Hogwarts Academy, he allows greatness to be thrust upon him. One of his sidekicks, Hermione (Emma Watson), is one of those too perfect, know-it-all, show-off, teachers’ pet little girls that we all hated in the fifth grade. Miss Watson, however, draws us into the character and lets us see her vulnerable side, as well as her courage, loyalty and generosity. Hermione can be exasperating, but she is also quite lovable without being cutesy.
Tom Felton creates a thoroughly odious Draco Malfoy. (What a name! Translation: Snake Bad-faith.) While the student body embodies the lesson that everyone has a likable side, Draco stands beyond acceptability. With his eerily slicked-back blond hair, he is the standard, class-conscious snob that always appears in British films to make life miserable for the hero during his stay at university. But Draco is only 12 years old! As a mini-monster, he’s simply scary.
The adults have an appropriately limited place in this child’s fantasy world, but they constitute the world as seen through the eyes of the protagonists. While the children appear as perfectly normal kids (despite their status as apprentice witches and wizards), the grown-ups are grotesques.
John Hurt as Mr. Ollivander, purveyor of magic wands and assorted paraphernalia for the black arts, approaches his role with such understated seriousness that he might be trying to help a teenager select a suitable pair of sneakers. His performance holds the key to creating a world familiar enough to be credible, even as the audience grows comfortable with the fantasy.
Alan Rickman is the deliciously reptilian Professor Severus Snape, the worst nightmare of any first-year boarder. He never really does anything particularly horrible, but one imagines him capable of the worst. And he would enjoy it.
Lest this read like a studio press release rather than a review, it should include the unchivalrous observation that Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall appears to be more a parody than a reprise of her famous portrayal of Miss Jean Brodie. The professor starts off with a wonderful scene in which she welcomes the new students and assigns them to the respective houses. But as she settles in to her schoolmarmish routine, her pursed lips suggest a facial implosion, and the voice is pitched so far back in the nasal passages that some misdirected witchcraft might have turned her into a subsistent sinus. There! My curmudgeon credentials remain intact after all.
So, as we board the Hogwarts Express and return to the world of the Muggles of Main Street, what have we learned from Harry and his magical friends? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a shamelessly commercial enterprise designed to wrest as much money as possible out of the pockets of defenseless parents. It’s also a nicely made movie that is great fun for adults as well as for young Potter fans. Who says it can’t be both? After all, some of my best friends are witches and wizards. Don’t hold that against them.