Archive Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

Hey, Harry Potter fans! Look for an archive review for every Harry Potter film, one each day until the release of “Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1”!

When a beloved book is given the big-screen treatment, there’s always the excitement factor of getting to see what was once only in your head come to life right before your eyes. That excitement was 100-fold with J.K. Rowling’s smash-hit fantasy series beginning with “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” With that much anticipation, there are some serious expectations for Warner Brothers’ behemoth franchise-to-be, and gladly the pay-off of seeing it all for the first time makes “Sorcerer’s Stone” a success with Potter fans.

As for those who never picked up the book, there might be a good portion among them who aren’t left spellbound. The enormous project suffers a bit out of fear of failing the fans, which is fair as they’re the target audience — along with families in general. That’s where the choice for Chris Columbus to produce and direct becomes the level-headed choice. With credits including both “Home Alone” films and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” Columbus clearly knows how to work with kids — and there is a lot of that work needing to be done with young actors Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson taking most of the screen time. All three are quite talented for having barely a credit to their names and Columbus deserves much of the praise for their performance.

The rest of the cast is pretty remarkable: a who’s who of outstanding British acting (and some Scottish). Richard Harris as Dumbledore, Maggie Smith as Professor McGonnagal, Richard Griffiths as Uncle Vernon, John Hurt as Mr. Olivander, Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid and Alan Rickman who is brilliantly chilling as the mean, stone-faced Professor Snape. Each of them clearly talented enough to bring these characters to life not just visually but with complexity. They are like the respected elders of the film and we bow our heads to them.

At the same time, the first Harry Potter is a much more childish film full of good vs. evil cliché. Maybe the attribution should go to the desire to not get slapped with anything more than a PG rating, which is understandable, but it dilutes the mystique of the novels. The art direction (with lavish sets and costumes) makes the film carry its own magical quality just like the book, but it’s the dramatic storytelling that’s not as breath-taking.

Part of that problem belongs to the challenge of adapting the book. Steve Kloves (“Wonder Boys”) proves an interesting choice, but I wouldn’t wish this assignment on anyone. Kloves opts for taking the maximum time producers would give him (two and a half hours — too much for a family film) and crams as much book material as he can into it. Not exactly the best way to do it, but the safest as far as fan-pleasing goes. “Sorcerer’s Stone” ends up vaulting from scene to scene and the result is that Harry goes from boy who didn’t know wizards existed to wizard student with the knowledge that strangers wouldn’t just carry dragon eggs in about an hour and a half. The story still gives Harry time to charm us and express his fears and wishes to know his parents, but his hero’s journey is undermined by sheer desire to fill the screen with as many magical elements from the book as possible.

“Sorcerer’s Stone” will certainly satisfy fans’ itches and entertain them at a high level of quality, which I can say falling into that category, but it’s a bit too much like a really long race because of its commitment to book obedience (and I’m sure plenty was missing too). But seeing it all come to life is enough to entertain the masses and provoke the imaginations of nearly all who sit down and watch.

3.5/5 Stars

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Directed by Chris Columbus
Written by Steve Kloves, JK Rowling (book)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Alan Rickman


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