Directed by: Chris Columbus
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Alan Rickman
I saw this most-anticipated movie event with a small, but diverse, group of film fans the night before it opened. Among my companions were at least two bonafide Potter-heads and a 17-year-old non-fan. The admirers of the books were, to say the least, disappointed ("I've been looking forward to this for months and when I was ready for it to be over long before it was, you know there's something wrong," said one). The 17-year-old fell asleep. My own response is somewhat more charitable. In the hands of a Tim Burton (the pre-Planet of the Apes Burton, that is), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone might have been a breathtaking classic, but it would no longer have been a slavishly faithful rendition of J.K. Rowling's children's novel -- and no one was taking any chances on that. Instead, the film was given over to director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves, thereby assuring all the faithfulness of a Masterpiece Theatre presentation, carefully reproducing nearly every comma of the source material. That's fine, except that it fails to take into account the fact that some things that work on the printed page work less well when translated to film -- not to mention that this kind of reverence runs the very real risk of embalming that which it seeks to capture. Fortunately, Harry Potter stops short of that last risk, but does manage to feel tentative and altogether too safe and calculated all the same. Blessedly, Columbus' direction is at least very unlike the broad frenzy of his Home Alone or Nine Months. In fact, it isn't very much like anything he has previously directed, but does strongly resemble Young Sherlock Holmes, which he wrote. And it has to be noted that Columbus and cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient) have given Harry Potter a gloriously, sweeping style with some of the most breathtakingly gorgeous widescreen images of the past year. The film is so good-looking that the images sometimes achieve a magical emotional resonance that the screenplay itself doesn't support. The ersatz Paul Dukas/Camille Saint-Saens score by John Williams actually enhances the movie rather than submerges it in musical bombast. The acting ranges from excellent to extraordinary, which isn't too surprising once you get past the three principle children -- Daniel Radcliffe (The Tailor of Panama) and newcomers Rupert Grint and Emma Watson -- the cast list reads like a Who's Who of British cinema. Most of the impressive cast do right by the film and the film does right by them. John Cleese as Nearly Headless Nick might just as well have stayed home, but his role is the exception, not the rule. An almost unrecognizable Richard Harris (along with about 26 miles of crepe hair) is a splendid Headmaster Dumbledore; John Hurt has a lovely cameo as a purveyor of magic wands; Maggie Smith is a nicely authoritative, but human, Deputy Headmistress McGonagall. Best of all is a richly comic performance (the performance is far richer than the somewhat contrived material) from Robbie Coltrane as Gamekeeper Hagrid. Then too, the children are on a par with their illustrious supporting cast, completely inhabiting their roles. All this is fine, but at 154 minutes Harry Potter is just too blessed long and the pacing does nothing to help this. Rather than take flight, the film tends to lumber along like the hyper-thyroid blockbuster it is -- all of which would be more acceptable if it led to much of anything, but it doesn't. The one thing Harry Potter so desperately needs, it doesn't have: an impressive climax. It duplicates the book's ending in such a thoroughly dull and mechanical manner that it's utterly anticlimactic - it certainly isn't a big enough ending to come anywhere near justifying the film's length. Moreover, the fact that one of the film's villains turns out be a red herring remains completely unresolved, since the character is still treated as a villain after his innocence is established. There are many fine things here. There is some genuine magic to the proceedings. It's certainly worth seeing. There's a good central message and the film definitely has a heart -- and about 30 minutes too much footage.