Early on in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, there’s a bright bubble of shared aha! that seems to burst from a collective moviegoing consciousness shaped by a thousand fairy tales. It happens when the orphaned 11-year-old Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), having only recently discovered that he’s meant for a more heroic life than the scullery-boy existence he has known to date, is first introduced to the privileges of wizardry.
Accompanied by a hairy, comradely, giant emissary called Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Harry leaves his hateful, bullying aunt and uncle, horrid cousin, and their priggishly middle-class house at 4 Privet Drive. He and Hagrid hightail it to timeless, bustling London, a place bathed in Christmas-card-colored light. There, the two buy supplies for the boarding school experience that is about to change Harry’s life—and has already changed the course of children’s reading habits around the world.
Author J.K. Rowling writes vividly about the anti-shopping mall known as Diagon Alley, describing Gringotts bank; the bookshop perfectly named Flourish and Blotts; and the emporia where Harry and Hagrid examine broomsticks and wands for the boy’s coming curriculum at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. (Any kid who has ever circumnavigated the sameness of the Gap and Foot Locker on a mall-crawling Saturday afternoon appreciates the differentness of Diagon.) And, in one sweeping, party-host welcome, director Chris Columbus brings this secret garden to visible life.
Accompanied by a glittery dusting of cinematic-magick theme music from John Williams, the director who mythologized middle-class 1990s family life in Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire translates places previously imagined by millions of readers into shiny images absorbable by millions more. These are pictures so inevitable (to a populace raised on David Lean epics and Macaulay Culkin vehicles) as to provoke a shiver or a sigh: This long, dense, special-effects-laden movie, crammed with subplots involving dragons, ghosts, bullies, evildoers, and moments spent in front of the dark, tantalizing Mirror of Erised that reflects Harry’s sad longing to be reunited with his dead parents, feels as familiar as worn flannel.
That sense of déjà vu is at once this Harry Potter’s balm and its limitation: many charms, but few surprises.
So this is the way to Hogwarts and its tie-in merchandise! Here’s the Obi-Wanish headmaster Albus Dumbledore, embellished by Richard Harris with a touch of Gladiator majesty; here’s the feline professor Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith, purring with vocal references to her prime as Miss Jean Brodie); here’s the sinister Potions professor Snape (Alan Rickman) and the stuttering Quirrell (Ian Hart), who instructs in Defense Against Dark Arts. Even smaller roles are filled by some of Britain’s grandest thespians—Fiona Shaw as Aunt Petunia Dursley, Richard Griffiths as Uncle Vernon, Zoë Wanamaker in an electrocuted hairdo as broomstick coach Madame Hooch—and each throws himself or herself into the task with the passion of Olivier taking on Henry V. (Rickman is practically incandescent with purpose; he emits a high-voltage zap of electricity with every glare.)
The casting of the student wizards is no less meticulous. Radcliffe’s mature self-possession, his soft handsomeness and unfussy sweetness as Harry play off the Our Gang gung-ho spirit of ginger-headed Rupert Grint as classmate Ron Weasley. Emma Watson summons the know-it-all imperiousness of Hermione Granger. And early on—for the first 30, 60, even 90 minutes—Columbus’ intrinsically American-style polished fidelity mixes with Rowling’s intrinsically English-style eccentric storytelling well enough to create an accessible movie built to satisfy readers, welcome novices, and support sequels. The interpretation may be lacking the thrilling, child’s-eye terrors of, say, Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy, or the surrealism of Lindsay Anderson’s great 1968 boarding school fantasy If…. But the movie makes up for its lack of directorial originality with, for instance, an excellent demonstration of how to play Quidditch, the Hogwarts specialty sport combining aspects of soccer and hockey, and executed in the air on broomsticks.
Yet without that personal touch, the movie eventually drags through the air rather than flies; at some two and a half hours, it’s one long game of heroes-and-challenges. By the time Harry faces the evil Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter tilts, overloaded with fact at the expense of magical fiction. Still, this is an engineering problem that ought to be correctable. ”It’s really the wand that chooses the wizard,” Mr. Ollivander (John Hurt, silky and intense) tells Harry when the boy receives his special stick, with which he will learn to do wonders in years (and sequels) to come. Rowling’s writing stick is naturally sharp, steeled with wit; Columbus’ wand—made in America of modern Hollywood materials—is naturally soft.
But surely there’s a magic Hogwarts potion somewhere that can be ingested by the filmmakers before Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets comes out next fall, isn’t there? That, at any rate, is what this fan sees when she looks into the Mirror of Erised, which, as Dumbledore explains, ”shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” B