If ever there was a critic-proof movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is it. The "Harry Potter" books have sold an estimated fifty skadillion copies worldwide and the big screen version of the first volume in J.K. Rowling’s series has arrived accompanied by all the marketing and merchandising wizardry Warner Bros. can conjure. The movie itself is almost beside the point – it could be a complete piece of junk and still rake in half a billion dollars. Fortunately for Potter fans, it’s not junk at all, but rather a lavish and proficient adaptation that nevertheless falls short of the first rank of children’s fantasies.
For those wayward few who have somehow managed not to crack the pages of a Potter adventure (a group that includes this reviewer), Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is an 11-year-old orphan who lives in a cupboard under the stairs in the home of his uncaring Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia. Unbeknownst to Harry, his real parents were a pair of magic practitioners struck down in their prime by an evil wizard (his aunt and uncle are Muggles – non-magical humans). Harry only learns this after accepting an invitation to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a fortress-like academy for the magically inclined. There he meets new chums Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), with whom he is assigned to Gryffendor House (a sentient Sorting Hat actually makes the decision). Gryffendor’s arch-rival is Slytherin House, populated by all manner of sneering bullies and future dark lords (why Hogwarts would bother to provide training for the evil and mischievous is a question that may be addressed in the books, but goes unanswered here). Under the direction of Professors Dumbledore (Richard Harris), McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and Snape (Alan Rickman), Harry begins his journey toward full-fledged wizardry.
The first half of Harry Potter is more episodic than plot-driven, and turns out to be the most enjoyable part of the film. Exploring the Hogwarts castle, with its cavernous dining hall, Escher-like staircases, living paintings and roving spirits (like Nearly Headless Nick, played with a twinkle by John Cleese), is one of the chief pleasures the movie has to offer. The two-and-a-half hour running time, unusually leisurely for a family movie, allows room for charming digressions, such as an unexpected visit from a fearsome troll, or an introductory lesson in Quidditch, a game played with broomsticks and flying balls. For a time, it’s easy for even a non-fan to see why the Potter series has cast such a spell.
Once the "sorcerer’s stone" is introduced into the story, however, much of the fun drains out of the movie. The CGI effects crank into overdrive, the action climaxes begin to pile up, and the sense of wonder rapidly dissipates. A giant three-headed hellhound named Fluffy makes a startling appearance, snarling and slobbering at our terrified heroes, but director Chris Columbus is too busy rushing toward flashier doings to spend much time with this remarkable beast. And even we Muggles know that a life-size game of chess is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but that doesn’t stop Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves from making it one of the film’s major set pieces.
Naturally, kids will be immune from such qualms (though younger tots may have difficulty sitting still for 152 minutes), and the Potter faithful are unlikely to be disappointed, if a recent advance screening audience is any indication. Certainly, compared to recent fantasy extravaganzas like The Mummy Returns, Harry Potter is a model of restraint and craftsmanship. Yet it does seem ironic that the one ingredient largely missing from the movie is the very element its main character seeks to master. Despite all the goodies in its bag of tricks, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone never quite delivers the magic.