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On Nov. 16, 2001, Warner Bros. launched J.K. Rowling’s wizarding universe in wide release with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which grossed more than $970 million worldwide. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
More than 100 million copies of these novels now circulate in 47 languages. The movie version of the first book has claimed national magazine covers and is backed by an initial marketing campaign pegged at more than $40 million. Internet buzz-meisters have made the film an odds-on favorite to break the three-day opening box-office record. Thus, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first of what Warner Bros. hopes will be a series of Harry Potter films to open each Christmas season, runs the risk of getting lost in its own consumer and media frenzy.
Fortunately, all hands involved in the production have faithfully observed the mantra, “It’s the book, stupid.” Taking only a few shortcuts and hewing as close to the spirit of a literary work as any movie can, Harry Potter vividly imagines the world of wizards, magic school and mystical creatures found in J.K. Rowling’s series of children’s adventure books. Clearly, the sky’s the limit, not only for worldwide box office but video, DVD, television and merchandising.
It cost a reported $126 million to give substance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, with its floating staircases and owl mail-delivery system. But the money is well spent: It has established Harry Potter’s cinematic credibility. Adapted by Steve Kloves and directed by Chris Columbus, the story remains a child’s fantasy version of a British boarding school, where young heroes and a spunky heroine battle not only against the forces of evil but, more importantly, study hard enough to continue next year. (After all, who wouldn’t want to go to this school?)
The young actors in the major roles all but pop out of Rowling’s pages. Daniel Radcliffe plays the Oliver Twist-like Harry with an unaffected, intelligent approach that maintains his wide-eyed wonder yet grounds Harry in a realistic sense of loyalty and honor.
A beautiful young girl named Emma Watson nails precocious Hermoine Granger. She makes scholarly ambition and determination admirable virtues, even if these don’t always go down well with fellow students. Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley gamely bucks a class system that exists even in a magic school and looks to exploit talents he does possess to maximum effect. As their snotty nemesis Draco Malfoy, Tom Felton is the personification of upper-class insolence.
As your child will be happy to tell you, Harry is an unreasonably well-balanced youngster, considering his miserable upbringing by a bullying family of Muggles — humans with no magical abilities. On his 11th birthday, though, the bespectacled Harry learns that he is the orphaned son of two powerful wizards. They were killed in a battle with an evil wizard, who was unable to kill Harry as an infant but did leave a lightning scar on his forehead. Now an adolescent, he is invited to attend Hogwarts to fulfill his destiny.
This opens up a parallel universe to Harry where the magical is everyday life. This begins with the school’s groundskeeper, Hagrid. Robbie Coltrane plays this hulking gentle giant as a naif, fond of weird creatures and loyal in his heart but forever letting school secrets slip despite the best of intentions.
Richard Harris lends graceful sagacity to headmaster Albus Dumbledore, while Maggie Smith is no-nonsense professor McGonagall (though looking too much like the Wicked Witch of the West). Alan Rickman gets the right edge of haughty arrogance for potions professor Snape, but soft-peddles the anger that marked the book’s character. As his counterpart, the stuttering Quirrell, instructor in the defenses against the dark arts, Ian Hart performs in the overanxious, hesitant manner we later learn is a ruse.
In striving to include nearly every major episode from the book, Columbus’ movie clocks in at over 2-1/2 hours. While this may create problems for parents of restless youngsters, the greater problem is this: Harry Potter feels like a movie in which its makers are afraid to make a single creative move. Rowling’s book is Holy Writ. No liberties are allowed. Consequently, the film, while slavishly faithful, contains little innovative juice outside of its visual richness.
On U.K. soundstages, designer Stuart Craig and cinematographer John Seale establish a dark and intricately detailed Hogwarts. Portraits on walls come alive, prankish ghosts float through corridors and interiors always seem in motion, shifting with the castle’s moods and whims. The midair games of Quidditch have been reduced from two to one for the movie version. But seeing it makes all the difference as the wild and woolly sport feels like a giant pinball game in the sky.
All other technical credits are top-notch, save for John Williams’ score — a great clanging, banging music box that simply will not shut up. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published on Nov. 9, 2001
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