The much anticipated film version of J.K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone should come with the caution that it sticks so closely to the book that it loses momentum and paints its superficially gifted wizard Harry as a fortunate kid without much personality. Although the movie makes the most of its cheeky British humor and quirky cast of characters, so much time is spent setting up its vacuous storyline that the anti-climax ending lands with a whimper. Robbie Coltrane and Allan Rickman create memorable characters while young Emma Watson rules the roost as Hermoine, Harry's magically superior peer at a Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The film's special effects go from great to mediocre, especially during the movie's centerpiece "Quidditch" game, which makes children riding on broomsticks look like they're posing in front of a slide projection.
With its barrage of carefully manicured hype, Harry Potter could well be the biggest cash cow Hollywood sees this year. But compare it with France's biggest blockbuster Amelie, and one can quickly recognize a split between French and American cinema that is as different as Cheese Whiz is to bleu cheese. While both are "feel-good" movies, Amelie is a far better movie for 12-year-olds because the story is hinged on respect for conscious will to elevate the self by passion and fantasy. The meat of Harry Potter dwells strictly in the realm of fantasy, and encourages dreaming over living life to its fullest.
Growing up, I was an avid fan of the Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators book series. I soaked up the adventures of the modern-day Hardy Boys, savoring every page and writing book reports for my 5th grade teacher Ms. Golsen every week. No doubt I enjoyed the same kind of euphoria that kids get from reading the Potter books.
But the child heroes in the Potter movie don't access any inner depth of reason or logic to communicate with each other or crack to their adventure. The three main child characters (Harry, Hermoine, and Ron) discover and deduce, but they barely bring their personalities to bear on the paint-by-numbers action at hand. Harry Potter, as an orphaned boy, seems complacent with his birth-given magical talents rather than willing to make an effort at improving himself. Harry disregards rules and elders when it suits his pride, and goes through life as a heart-on-his-sleeve victim/hero. He's kind of an insult to kids-who-wear-glasses because he never seems to study, doesn't know any answers in class, and invariably relies on Hermoine (Emma Watson) to get him out of a jam with her knowledge of spells or her magic wand.
More to the point is that this overlong and tedious cinema product is being offered as the best thing since peanut butter and jelly. Great care has gone into creating sets and props that fulfill the whimsy and tone of the Harry Potter books, right down to the number of owls in a scene. But not much care has gone into fulfilling the relationships between the children and their adult mystical masters at a private college for little magicians. The problem plays out in subtle ways. Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane of Goldeneye) is introduced as a capable chaperone to Harry, but recedes into the woodwork of the story only to later be revealed as a none-too-bright bum of sorts. It's disheartening to see the character built up to the audience and have that respect stripped away. It's not so much that Coltrane is forced to break character than that he has it taken away from him.
What's important to the story is that Harry recovers an unimpressive ruby-like rock called the "sorcerer's stone" from the bowels of a castle dungeon where it's protected by a three-headed dog. The fact that Harry's lack of interest in the stone's power enables him to serve as its liberator gets him off the hook of having to do any head-scratching analysis of how to solve the musty mystery.
At two-and-a-half-hours long, even the British charm that glues the movie together starts to wane. Questions of why Harry doesn't use his wand more drift into conjecture about restrictions of puberty, and a fire-breathing baby dragon that Hagrid makes hatch seems like the best scene in the film. Adult audiences will likely be enchanted to boredom by the start of the second hour, but won't feel guilty about catching some sleep while their children watch with wonder in their eyes.
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