November 19, 2001 -- Harry Potter, the kid destined to become a great wizard, has finally arrived in theaters, along with more hype than the last Star Wars movie. It is already starting to look like the biggest box office hit of all time. I think it is a good movie. Not great, but good. It delivers exactly what you would expect from a popular fairy tale in this age of digital animation. This film has already been both praised and panned because it is closely faithful to the immensely popular book by J.K. Rowling.
I understand the criticism about the film's plot. It does follow the book closely. If you've read the book, the movie presents no surprises. It is sort of anticlimactic after all the hoopla. But what would you have the moviemakers do? If they substantially changed the plot, there would be howls of protest from the millions of Potter faithful, and quite likely, the film would make less money. After all, this is not art, it is a movie, a commercial product. No, more than that, it is a multibillion dollar movie franchise, an enormous cash cow for Heyday Films and the Warner Brothers studio. Of course the movie is faithful to the book. Warner Brothers is not stupid. You don't mess with the plot of a book that is already so fantastically commercially successful in its own right (over 100 million copies sold in over 46 languages). Besides, what makes anybody think the filmmakers could come up with a better plot or better characters than Rowling did? It seems pretty unlikely.
Director Chris Columbus ("Bicentennial Man," "Stepmom," "Mrs Doubtfire," "Only the Lonely," "Home Alone"), is a successful, mainstream filmmaker. He's not one of the greats, but he's good enough not to screw up a good thing. As I write this, he's already working on "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," and is, along with Warner Brothers, whistling a happy tune on his way to the bank.
This is one of the few movies where I actually made an attempt to read the book prior to seeing the movie. I didn't quite finish it. I read three-quarters of the way through the book before seeing the movie. In a way, I wish I hadn't read the book first. I already knew just about every line of dialogue that came up through the first two-thirds of the film. Perhaps because the film does try to capture so much of the book, it is a long film, and could have been shortened. I found the film more interesting in the last third, because I didn't know exactly what was coming at that point. Usually, I avoid trying to know too much about a film before seeing it. Too much advance knowledge ruins the experience for me. On the other hand, the film definitely makes more sense if you read the book first. The film is like highlights from the book, rather than a complete, stand-alone work.
The basic plot, for those who haven't read the book, is a story about an 11-year-old boy named you-know-who (played by Daniel Radcliffe). The story follows him through his first year of study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry and his friends discover a dark secret at the school and in the forbidden forest near the school grounds. They do battle with evil, as well as snotty little brats and bullies. There are ghosts, goblins, trolls and other beasts to contend with, as well as those seduced by "the dark side" of magic (the film actually uses those words). Suffice it to say no insurance company would ever insure Hogwarts. It is a story about love, friendship and courage. Here, the world is divided into the non-magical world of muggles, ordinary people, and a magical world, a kind of parallel universe existing alongside the muggle world. Harry is raised with a family of loutish muggles. When Harry is introduced to the magical world, you don't really see the impact of it on him as much as you would expect. I expected to see more of a sense of wonder and discovery.
Radcliffe is not especially strong as the lead character, but there are plenty of fine actors in supporting roles. Emma Watson, who plays Hermione Granger seems especially apt for the part, as is Tom Felton, who plays the spoiled Draco Malfoy. There is some real stellar talent among the adult performers, including award-winning actors like Richard Harris of "Gladiator," who plays Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, John Hurt of "Contact," who plays Ollivander, seller of magic wands and Maggie Smith of "Tea with Mussolini," who plays Professor McGonagall/Deputy Headmistress. Other well-known actors include Robbie Coltrane of "From Hell," who plays gentle giant Rubeus Hagrid, Alan Rickman of "Galaxy Quest," who plays the delightfully menacing Professor Severus Snape, John Cleese of "The World is Not Enough" plays Sir Nicholas De Mimsy-Porpington (Nearly Headless Nick) and Julie Walters of "Billy Elliot") as Mrs. Molly Weasley. Also effective is Zoë Wanamaker as Madame Hooch.
The film has the kind of lavish special effects (from Industrial Light and Magic and other effects houses), production design and costumes you would expect from a high-profile project like this. The songs and poems in the book are mostly absent from the movie, however, and the musical score seemed overly loud compared to voices and other sounds in the film. The creatures, like the three-headed dog and a troll are somewhat slimy and threatening. The movie does have a dark edge to it, but again, anyone who has read the book knows exactly what they are in for. This film rates a B.
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