'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' turns 20: How well did our movie review age?
The first Harry Potter film, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," hit U.S. theaters on Nov. 16, 2001. USA TODAY is republishing articles from its archives to mark the movie's 20th anniversary.
Director Chris Columbus vowed to be faithful to J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," and to a certain extent he is. But one can be faithful to a plot without being faithful to the book.
"Harry Potter," the film, looks just as dazzling as readers of Rowling's captivating book might hope. But the movie (★★★ out of four, rated PG) ultimately lacks the book's delightful whimsy and much of the sly verbal humor that made Rowling's tales so charming. Rowling wrote a book that's clever and witty, as well as scary, fanciful and sometimes sad. But not enough of that emotional range ends up on the screen.
The movie actually improves on the book in its opening sequence by cutting to the chase. An owl flies across the night sky toward the stately figure of a bearded wizard walking on a deserted street. A swaddled infant bearing a lightning scar arrives minutes later, sheltered in the burly arms of the towering Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), who flies in on a speeding motorcycle, recalling the seminal scene in "E.T."
The baby is Harry Potter, who becomes the ward of an obnoxious aunt and uncle. More than unloved, he is forced to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs and endure constant mocking.
Harry's life changes on his 11th birthday, when he learns he is the orphaned son of two powerful wizards who were murdered by the evil Lord Voldemort. Invited to attend his parents' alma mater of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) befriends affable chess whiz Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and brainy know-it-all Hermione Granger (Emma Watson).
He soon learns to fly and reveals a special talent for Quidditch, an airborne sport that fuses elements of soccer and basketball. But Harry's biggest challenge is to keep an evil wizard from making off with the well-guarded sorcerer's stone, which promises immortality and unending wealth.
The production design is stunning: Hogwarts, with its pontificating paintings and shifting staircases; Diagon Alley, a supernatural shopping mall; and Gringotts Bank, overseen by shrewd goblins, are all superbly rendered.
The casting of elder wizards, such as Richard Harris as Hogwarts' wise headmaster, is inspired, as is Coltrane's scene-stealing performance. In contrast, the three younger wizards are less dynamic screen presences. As Harry, Radcliffe projects an effective blend of innocence, mischief and droll humor. Though his delivery is flat at times, he has some endearing moments, such as when he sees his dead parents in a magic mirror. His best pals, Ron and Hermione, are competent but not as lovable as their written counterparts. Watson lays it on a bit thick in her know-it-all portrayal.
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The much-anticipated Quidditch scene emerges more dangerous and hyperkinetic than the literary version, amped up no doubt to satisfy a young audience accustomed to a steady diet of video games and eye-popping special effects. And a menacing chess match with exploding life-size pieces may be too intense for very young ones.
Similarly, John Williams' overly insistent score lacks subtlety and bludgeons us with crescendos.
Columbus wanted to give his movie a timeless quality, and visually, at least, he has succeeded. Though the film will undoubtedly please the young viewers who flock to it, ultimately many of the book's readers may wish for a more magical incarnation.
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The 'Harry Potter' books: Read our original review of 'Sorcerer's Stone'