Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
review by KJ Doughton, 16 November 2001

Let me set the record straight. I have not perused even one page of J.K. Rowling’s celebrated Harry Potter prose.  Such blockbuster books as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire sound about as appealing to me as a sit ‘n spin atop the Sword of Excalibur. Making matters worse was the endless orgy of pre-show advertising thrust upon me as I hunkered down in a multiplex and geared up for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first cinematic chapter of Rowling’s phenomenally successful vision of possessed wizard’s hats, mail-delivering owls, and menacing ogres.

Indeed, what preceded Potter was a typical surge of “event movie” commercials and previews that rammed itself down my throat with the subtlety of a fireworks display. Fox television advertised a holiday boob-tube special. Lexus previewed their latest overpriced luxury vehicle. Screaming cats, buzzing planes, zigzagging skateboarders, and ass-biting dogs stampeded across the screen, alerting viewers to such gentle holiday features as Stuart Little 2 and Snow Dogs. If this weren’t enough to induce post-traumatic stress disorder, equally raucous ads for Lord of the Rings and Scooby Doo: The Movie stormed the screen. Don’t we hide out in the cinema to escape such noisy bouts of shameless sales tactics? 

The barrage of offensive advertising raised a big question, as Harry Potter’s beginning credits hit the screen. Would this latest big-budget movie variation of a successful children’s franchise lower itself to the same soulless, homogenous standards as the ads preceding it?  After all, its director was Chris Columbus, a filmmaker known more for his audience-pleasing, fortune-making studio hits (Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone) than for anything resonant or profound.  As one of the few adults in a sold-out theater full of candy and pop-saturated tots, I remained the lone skeptic. The familiar Harry Potter logo flashed across the screen and was met with a chorus of enthusiastic “oohs” and “aahs.”  This Potter fellow really seemed to have a following.

An otherworldly atmosphere cloaks Harry Potter from its opening frames, where the camera follows an owl to Privet Drive. A trio of witches and wizards is delivering a mysterious baby to the mist-enshrouded, moonlit English neighborhood. At the scene is Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), a strict-yet-loving old dame who can turn from female to feline. Professor Dumbledore (Richard Harris, who allegedly took the role only after his granddaughter, a big fan of the books, insisted on it), sporting a gray, Rasputin-length beard and wise, world-weary eyes, also attends the gathering. Hairy Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) , who pulls up on a motorcycle, conjures forth memories of the fearsome biker from Raising Arizona but possesses the heart of a gentle teddy bear. All three of these authorities in magic work at the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, and they’re also looking after this mysterious infant, who is planted on a doorstep. Who is the family living there, destined to raise young Harry Potter until the lad is ready to further his occult education at Hogwarts?  This is the first of many mysteries presented during Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

The film then zips forward eleven years, and we’re privy to the plight of a preadolescent, bespectacled Harry as he suffers with his foster parents,  UncleVernon Dursley (Griffiths) and Aunt Petunia (Shaw). Proclaimed “the worst sort of muggles” (term translation: non-magic types) by Hagrid, the two pathetic guardians make Harry their whipping boy, blaming him for their many shortcomings.  Harry is sentenced to a life lived in a cupboard under the stairs, while their spoiled putz of a son, Dudley (Melling), complains that he’s received only thirty-six birthday presents. “Last year I had thirty-seven,” he sobs.  Meanwhile, Harry’s uncle is a bungling walrus of a man who, literally and figuratively, pushes his weight around the house like an overgrown bully. “Any funny business,” he menaces Harry before a family outing to the zoo, “and it’s no meals for a week!”

Fast forward to the zoo, where Harry demonstrates why he is different from his boring, muggle relatives. He converses with snakes. He causes glass walls to disappear.  Soon, such unique powers prompt the folks at Hogwarts to summon Harry into their enchanted university. He’s ready to polish up his alchemy and magic, and become a first-string wizard.

The next third of the movie involves Harry’s training at the Hogwarts School, strewn across a medieval castle on a desolate island.  The imagery is dark and gothic as Hagrid helms a boat full of Hogwart students from the mainland to their new stomping grounds, but upon their arrival, the school echoes those stuffy, English private schools from Chariots of Fire or Dead Poets Society. It’s The Paper Chase meets The Witches of Eastwick, as Harry conforms to the establishment’s rules just enough to avoid expulsion, while breaking them just enough to unearth mysteries from his past. For instance, precisely what happened to Harry’s deceased parents, and why is he a celebrity around Hogwarts' staff and students?

Director Columbus paints his overwhelming set pieces using confident, epic stokes.  A cathedral-like banquet room hosts white candles suspended in mid-air.  One minute, the hundreds of brass plates lining each table are empty – with the flick of a wand, they’re alive with the organic, fresh color of exotic fruits, vegetables, and meat.  The dazzling visual panache of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is comparable such feasts for the eyes as What Dreams May Come and Gladiator in terms of scope and creativity. Covered in emerald-green grass, a playing field hosts the fast-action game of Quidditch, a kind of wizard’s hockey involving flying broomsticks and balls with names like Bludgers, Quaffles, and The Golden Snitch.  This well-staged game played between two student teams brings to mind the kinetic rush of The Phantom Menace’s frantic pod race.  A three-headed dog threatens Harry with snarling lips and copious drool.  A menacing ogre (think Shrek gone postal) faces off with Harry, and is put in his place via a strategically placed wand.  An army of hooting owls drops hundreds of snowflake-like telegrams from the sky.  At these moments, Harry Potter shows the promise of a potential children’s classic – something ranking with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, E.T., or The Wizard of Oz

Alas, it is not to be.  Like Steven Spielberg’s overreaching Hook, or George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace, the movie’s sense of wonder is deflated by long, expository scenes, in which characters are introduced and plot points are clarified.  For instance, Alan Rickman emerges as a goth-garbed alchemist (and dead ringer for the similarly sinister Trent Reznor of industrial band Nine Inch Nails) who may or may not be Harry’s nemesis.  He’s a dour, sneering prince of darkness with great potential, but the buildup leads nowhere.  Harry’s Hogwarts friends, the earnest, red-headed Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and the know-it-all Hermione Granger (Emily Watson), are enthusiastically played by game young actors, but even they have little room to breathe as full-blown characters.  Meanwhile, the villain is a mostly-absent fiend named Voldemort, whose climactic battle with Harry is a bit of a dud.  Where’s Darth Vader when you need him?

Even so, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone will not disappoint Rowling’s legions of fans. Played by Daniel Radcliffe, Harry comes across as a humble bloke who enjoys a good laugh and stands up for what’s right.  When Draco Malfoy (Felton) a cut-throat, competitive student and Harry's rival, steals the magical orb of an injured rival, Harry has the guts to retrieve it.  He’s like a more scholarly, understated Luke Skywalker.  Too bad his film didn’t boast a more potent villain, or, at a sleep-inducing two-and-a-half-hour running time, a better editor. Without these two key players, Harry Potter risks turning into something even worse than a toad – Harry Plodder.

Read other Harry Potter reviews:

Directed by:
Chris Columbus

Daniel Radcliffe
Rupert Grint
Emma Watson
Robbie Coltrane
Matthew Lewis
Tom Felton
Richard Harris
Maggie Smith
Alan Rickman
Richard Griffiths
Fiona Shaw
Harry Melling

Written by:
Steven Kloves
Based on the
Novel by

J.K. Rowling

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.





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