Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
dir.: Chris Columbus
PG, 152 min.
Now playing at area theaters
We live in a culture where entertainment carries the heavy baggage of hype and cynicism, so when a phenomenon like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter children’s adventure stories comes along, it’s forced through an exaggerated cycle of public awareness. The first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, became a cult success among that small but virtuous group of people who pay attention to good kid-lit. Then the mainstream media took note of the well-crafted, page-turning narrative, and by the time Rowling’s second and third books came out, the likes of Entertainment Weekly and USA Today were rallying on the series’ behalf and explicating the intricate, absorbing world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. When book four hit the shelves, children in makeshift robes stood in line outside retailers at midnight, and the story hit the local news. Ubiquity!
Now there’s a movie, directed by the questionable Chris Columbus (helmer of Stepmom and Mrs. Doubtfire) from a script by smart writer Steve Kloves (scribe of Wonder Boys). Given the deafening buzz, if Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone isn’t a life-changing masterpiecewhich it isn’tsome viewers are bound to reject the entire experience as a dud. And in many ways, newcomers who dismiss the movie dismiss the book, since Columbus and Kloves have translated Harry Potter’s story to the screen almost exactly as Rowling wrote it.
Daniel Radcliffe plays the bespectacled preteen magician with the lightning bolt scar on his foreheadforged as a baby, when an encounter with an evil wizard left Harry parentless and made his name famous among the magicking. The movie follows Harry’s journey from his cramped room under the stairs of his aunt and uncle’s house to the mostly warm acceptance of the prestigious magic school Hogwarts, where our hero learns spells, plays quidditch (sort of a mix of soccer and polo, played in the air on broomsticks), and finds best friends in Ron Weasley (played by Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). The three pals stumble on a plot by one of the Hogwarts professors to steal a philosopher’s stone (called a “sorcerer’s stone” in the U.S. version of the book and movie), and they have to make their way past killer trolls, three-headed dogs and enormous, murderous chess sets to save the day.
In choosing to retain just about every incident in the Rowling text, Columbus and Kloves have made a two-and-a-half hour movie that really does feel too long, especially for those who have read the Harry Potter books and may be anticipating what’s coming nextnot just in the film but in its sequels. Columbus also relies too much on the saccharine, derivative John Williams score, and on CGI effects that often look fakey and superfluous. Really now, do you need to use CGI to make an owl fly?
But the young performers are agreeable, and the Brit-cinema superstars who fill out the castparticularly Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw and Zoe Wannamakerall inhabit Rowling’s characters with an ease that’s fun to watch. Plus, the film looks fantastic; I loved the Caligari-esque expressionism of Diagon Alley, the shoe shop-like wand store, the levitating candles and moving paintings of Hogwarts, the majesty of the quidditch field, and the gnarled, sage Sorting Hat. Best of all, the central emotional appeal of Rowling’s book comes through in the basic arc of a neglected boy finding a place where he feels at home and where his talents are appreciated.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is perhaps best enjoyed for the great pop moment that it’s become. The 8-year-olds who saw the movie on opening weekend will likely remember the excitement of that screening for the rest of their lives, and the movie is competent enough and true enough to its source that it will hold up a generation from now, sort of like the way the big movie musicals of the early ’60s suffice as a record of what the stage experience must’ve been like. Because once the hype subsides, the story is still there, and even if the author’s fantasy mythology is too reliant on earlier classics and on video-game action, her central character’s plight is where the heart of the phenomenon beats.
You must remember this
Leave aside the argument about whether Casablanca deserves inclusion among the best films ever made. Let me propose a few reasons why Casablanca remains the ultimate American movie.
For starters, it’s the ultimate Bogart movie. Rick Blaine, more than anyone, defined our image of Humphrey Bogart: a gruff, cynical shell concealing, as Claude Rains accurately suspects, “a rank sentimentalist.” By contrast, there is no sentimentality in Sam Spade, who would have regarded Rick as a sap for letting anyone take his ticket for the last plane out of town.
It’s the ultimate dialogue movie. The story goes that the projector broke a few minutes into a screening of Casablanca at Yale. Instead of leaving, the students supplied the rest of the dialogue from memory. The tale is not implausible just because it’s apocryphal. Rains gets a disproportionate number of the memorable one-liners, though my favorite“He’s just like any other man, only more so”is delivered by Bogart.
It’s the ultimate Warner Brothers movie. The studio’s great supporting ensembleRains, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, S.Z. Sakall and the pickpocket Curt Boiswere never more entertaining together. Thank God Warners rounded up the usual suspects.
It’s the ultimate icon film. At some point, every American male wants to be Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: the cynical idealist, the vulnerable tough guy, sophisticated, clever, generous, well dressed, slightly mysterious and, above all, way cool. No wonder Woody Allen conjured up Bogart’s spirit for guidance in Play It Again, Sam.
But I suspect that Casablanca’s enduring popularity more than anything has to do with two other ultimates.
I’d argue that it’s the ultimate college film (although, of course, it vies with The Graduate for this title). Not coincidentally, most Casablanca fans first engaged with it during their college years, when they were old enough to be cynical but hadn’t shed all their private idealism. Casablanca indulges both qualities. And any world-weary, rejected-in-love sophomore who wants everyone to feel his pain identifies with Rick. Thus, like few other films, Casablanca finds a new audience with each generation. The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.
Especially, though, I have come to appreciate Casablanca as the ultimate propaganda film. It’s cleverly disguised as a love and adventure story, but its message is a call to sacrifice for a nation mobilizing for war. Part of the movie’s genius is that this message never seems forced upon the story. In the end, Rick realizes that some things are more important even than true love. Besides, he (and we) will always have Paris.
It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, and one of 50 pictures cranked out by Warners in 1942. Yet something intangible and unrepeatable happened with Casablanca. A remake would be not just impossible but pointless. I’ve seen it almost 20 times now. I’m not tired of it yet.
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