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  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Starring Daniel Ratcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Zoe Wanamaker, Alan Rickman, Tom Felton, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw and Harry Melling. 
Directed by Chris Columbus 
Written by Steve Kloves from the novel by J. K. Rowling 
Cinematography by John Seale, A.C.S., A. S. C. 
Music by John Williams 
Warner Brothers 
Running time: 150 minutes 
Rated PG for mild language and some scary scenes 
Website:www.harrypotter.com 

Have you read the books? If you have to ask "which books?," then you clearly haven't had your fill of Harry hype. I, of course, mean the Harry Potter books, the biggest thing in children's literature since who knows when. And with the imminent arrival of the first movie installment (a promised six more to come), it will be exceedingly difficult to ignore Mr. Potter and his legion of fans. Not that you'd want to--the books are marvelous fun, and the movie isn't bad either.

Those already versed in Potter lore can skip the following two introductory paragraphs. Harry Potter is a celebrity at age 11, though he doesn't know it. As a baby, he single-handedly defeated the evil Dark Lord Voldemort but not before Voldemort killed Harry's parents. Orphaned, he was left with his uncle and aunt (the Dursleys--think Aunt Spiker and Sponge in James and the Giant Peach) who tried to suppress all mention of magic, going so far as to destroy Harry's mail and make him live underneath a cupboard. But on Harry's eleventh birthday, he gets a visitor named Hagrid, a huge, hairy man who comes to retrieve Harry and bring him to Hogwarts, the most famous wizard school of them all.

At Hogwarts--a fine example of an English boarding school, only with classes like Potions, Charms, and Defense Against the Dark Arts--Harry is part of the Gryffindor house, which is where he meets his best friends Ron and Hermione. He of course must have an arch-nemesis, whose name is Draco Malfoy, another "first-year" at Hogwarts. But Harry's real adversary is Professor Snape who seems to be after something called the Sorcerer's Stone. This stone, which few have ever seen, can confer both unlimited
wealth and eternal life. How Harry and his friends save the Sorcerer's Stone from the evil one forms the basis of the first novel.

The Harry Potter series is a worthy addition to the line of intelligent British children's books. Like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Roald Dahl before, J.K. Rowling has taken mythical archetypes (lost parents, humble children destined for great things, epic adventures involving magic and unseen forces) and created a fantastically intricate universe. While Rowling doesn't have the grace or style of her forebears, her creativity is unmatched. A mirror that shows you your true desires, a hat that chooses which house you'll live in, train platform 9 3/4, and Quidditch (a flying game that resembles lacrosse) are just a few of Rowling's clever inventions.

All of this has been lovingly transferred to one of the biggest movies of the year. Given that literally millions of kids have read the books, the film's producers have wisely refrained from making substantial changes. Sure, certain minor characters have been eliminated and some scenes shortened or deleted, but the narrative arc is still the same.

Playing the titular hero is Daniel Radcliffe, with Rupert Grint as Ron and Emma Watson as Hermione. All three give appealing, natural performances. Radcliffe has a few too many reaction shots of wonder, but that's the director's fault, not his. Grint is perfect as Ron, and Watson is cute as a button.

As in the books, Ron and Hermione are the more interesting characters, though my friend Garth was impressed by how smart Harry is. Usually the heroes of children's movies tend to be a little dim, so that all children can relate. But neither the books nor the movie try to dumb anything down.

In fact, the movie's pace is surprisingly stately. This becomes somewhat of a problem near the film's conclusion, as director Chris Columbus (Home Alone) goes for dread instead of excitement and ends up with a rather boring last reel. I noticed a few of the young 'uns squirming in their seats as the movie's 150+ minutes drew to a close.

The production design, courtesy of three-time Academy-Award winner Stuart Craig (The English Patient), is both visually stunning and wonderfully faithful to the book. Diagon Alley, where Harry goes to buy his school supplies, is exactly how I pictured it when I read the tale. Everything is perfect, from the Leaky Cauldron (a pub where everyone knows Harry's name) to Gringotts bank (nicely reminiscent of Mary Poppins) to Ollivanders Wand Shop (with a marvelous cameo from John Hurt as the shopkeeper). The sets instill both a sense of wonder with their fantastic elements, but the intricacies and details also feel right, as if this is how a wizards' world tucked away inside modern England might appear. That's a tricky combination but one that's critical to letting the audience revel in this realm they've entered.

The special effects aren't always as effective. The Invisibility Cloak might be one of the coolest things I've seen all year, but by and large the big CGI scenes leave a lot to be desired. In particular, the central
Quidditch match, which functions just like the pod race in Phantom Menace, is so blurry and obsessed with speed that there's little suspense or excitement. On the other hand, the Sorting Hat sequence is delightful.

The most delightful parts of the movie, however, besides the source material, are the adult characters and the actors who play them. The best of the bunch is Robbie Coltrane (The World is Not Enough) as Hagrid. He provides both the emotional core of the film and the comic relief. Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) and Richard Harris (Gladiator) are pitch-perfect as Professors McGonagall and Dumbledore. And though his part is smaller than I'd like, Alan Rickman (Die Hard) brings a compelling menace to the role of Snape.

I'm never a good judge of these things, but I suspect that Harry Potter is appropriate for any child above the age of seven or eight. Younger than that, and he might be either too scared (there are some fairly intense sequences) or too bored. Anyone older than that will be charmed. 

J. Robert Parks 11/13/2001


 

Relax, everyone, Harry Potter is here to save the day. The first of J. K. Rowling's children's books is on the screen for you to enjoy. The full title of this film is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.  You don't have to read the book to enjoy the story, but it does help. What takes paragraphs in the book to describe (the word, "muggles" for example, which are non-magic people) is done away with in a few words on screen.  Let's face it; it's nearly impossible to do this entire book in one film, though Warner Brothers gives it a valiant try. 

The film begins when Harry (Daniel Ratcliffe from The Tailor of Panama) is a baby and brought to the doorstep of his non-magic relatives. Harry's parents were killed by the evil wizard, Voldemort ("we dare not speak his name") and Harry, somehow, escaped death but with a lightning-bolt scar on his forehead. The relatives (Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw and Harry Melling) are so cruel to Harry (think Cinderella and the wicked stepsisters here); you can't wait for the magic to begin and for Harry to get out of there.  He truly does live under the stairs in a cubbyhole. 

One of the highlights is Hogwarts School of Magic's attempt to notify Harry by owl-post mail that he is to begin attending classes there.  After going through Gate 9 ¾ to get on the Hogwarts Express (another highlight), Harry is off to the land of adventure. His new friends are Hermione (Emma Watson), Ron (Rupert Grint) and the friendly giant, Rubeus (Robbie Coltrane.) Every school has a villain and here it is rich classmate, Draco (Tom Felton).   Harry doesn't realize it, but his teachers really are looking out for him.  Watch for Richard Harris (Professor Dumbledore), Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), and Zoe Wanamaker (Madame Hooch). Alan Rickman is the creepy Professor Snape, who deliciously overacts. 

Visual effects are quite good and favorites will be not only the Hogwarts Express, but Gringotts Bank and vault manned by goblins, the school's food hall, choosing a wand, Quiddich match (think Stars Wars here), and a chess game with giant figures.  The Invisibility Cloak sections are well done.  I would have liked a bit more of the baby dragon Rubeus tries to raise.  What goes on for a chapter in the book is done away with in 30 seconds here. 

Now, down the meat of the film.  Daniel Ratcliffe is a British actor who may look like Harry, but is a beat off with reactions compared to the rest of the cast.  He is in just about every scene, but when with Watson and Grint, there is no comparison.  John Williams's soundtrack, though rhythmic, sounds like a recycled Indiana Jones theme.  At one point, the sorcerer's stone (supposed to bring one immortality, though it isn't completely explained) appears in Harry's pocket.  How did it get there?  Magic? 

The film is rated PG, but I thought the underworld sequence of the animated Hercules (rated G) more frightening than Fluffy, the three-headed dog. At two and a half hours, kids under age eight may have trouble sitting through it. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone can be for the entire family.  Who wouldn't want a school where staircases change direction at will and a snowy owl is one of your best friends? Not to mention portraits that talk and classes with exploding feathers.  Makes English 101 downright dull. 

Copyright 2001Marie Asner 11/14/2001

For the record, I'm not exactly a fan of the Harry Potter books.  I managed to make it through the first one, but I couldn't help realizing that kids are enjoying these largely because Rowling is recycyling ideas and elements of so many greater works that came before her. It's painful to note that most kids' first encounter with unicorns, magic wands, flying broomsticks, spooky castle corridors, dark forests, trolls, and long-bearded wizards will come from the efficient commercial fiction of J.K. Rowling instead of the rich poetry of T.H. White, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, Shakespeare, Sir Thomas Malory, Hans Christian Anderson, and The Grimm Brothers, to name a few. (Of course, we can always hope kids will go on to read these works, now that their taste for literature has been whetted. And it is a tad better than leaving it to Disney to cartoonize, sugar-coat, and oversimplify such stories.)

The Harry Potter movie is here, and it more a success than a flop. That is, what's in the book is onscreen, bearing a remarkable resemblance to what readers probably imagined. Congraulations to the cast and crew; it's harder work to portray these things effectively onscreen than just to write them down. (But then again, it's healther for us to read and imagine them than just to be spoon-fed them by Hollywood, isn't it?) While most scenes are adequate but not sensational, I found myself longing for a DVD, so I could scan from scene to scene and get to the heart of the story faster.

I couldn't help but notice... The matinee began at 1:40pm. I checked my watch, only to realize that the Stone named in the title was not even mentioned until 3:30! This was a problem with the book as well, but perhaps the movie should be re-named. 

How about calling it The Many Expressions of Harry Potter? The film introduces us to a vast cast of characters and important magical objects, and for each one the camera zooms in on Harry's reaction-puzzlement, happiness, semi-wicked glee, astonishment. Harry is so busy reacting that we don't get to know him. The film passes up many opportunities to let our focus shift from his surroundings to him. The only reason we root for him is because bad things happen to him, instead of because we know what's on his mind or his heart. At one point, we see him sitting in the window of his room at Hogwarts, and there's a great opportunity to sense longing or loneliness, like the moment when Luke Skywalker stares out at the two suns of Tattooine in Star Wars. Because George Lucas paused and let the moment resonate, that image became the heart and soul of "Star Wars," the moment when Luke became the true central character. But Columbus rushes right on past it in Harry Potter. That's too bad. In the books, Harry taps into our longings for identity and family. In the hands of a director with greater vision, Big Screen Harry could have done the same thing. But the movie's in too big a hurry to pack in every page of the book (with only a couple of exceptions, noticeable because everything else made it in.) Harry is reduced to a wide-eyed cipher, looking about at characters far more interesting, witty, and surprising than he. 

And what a colorful crew they are. My personal favorite is Hermione, the brainy girl who befriends Harry. Her cocksure attitude makes her a big screen cousin to Princess Leia. If this was real life, the story would degenerate into a romantic tug-of-war between Harry and Ron, and if I was one of their adolescent classmates you'd have to count me in as well. She's played by Emma Watson, only one of many talented young actors making their big screen debuts here, and it's not hard to imagine her growing up to be the next Kate Winslet or Helena Bonham Carter. 

The entire cast is to be commended. Veteran actors John Hurt (Alien) and Alan Rickman (Die Hard, Galaxy Quest) almost steal the movie with their brief but vivid scenes and over-the-top line delivery. Richard Harris wisely plays the benevolent Professor Dumbledore with surprising and effective restraint. And it is uncanny how Robbie Coltrane brings Hagrid to life. He's burly, brusque, and prone to blunders, and whenever he's onscreen the film gains much-needed energy and personality. Being a lifelong fan of owls, I must say I became twice as alert whenever they graced the screen (thus, once scene in particular was like a dream come true.) Even in the company of such a distinguished cast, they were more dignified, interesting, and memorable than anyone.

Unfortunately, these fine performances are nearly wasted by Columbus's predictable direction and an overbearing, relentless soundtrack. There's nothing distinct about Columbus. He's happy to resemble other directors, Spielberg most of all, with innumerable slow-zooms of gaping youngsters, reminding us that this is the man responsible for those nagging memories of open-mouthed Macaulay Culkin.The camera just points and shoots, offering those who read the book no new surprises. It is, for the record, Columbus's most impressive work to date, and he pulls off some of the necessarily spooky scenes like the voyage into the archetypically "dark forest" or the energy of a Quidditch match (for which he obviously studied the Pod Race in The Phantom Menace.) But his high-action scenes are not nearly as coherent as Spielberg's; they're generally chaotic, noisy, and full of unconvincing digital effects. And the confrontation with  Shrek's big brother in a dank Hogwart's ladies' room only made me long for a troll that's actually scary (Just wait until The Fellowship of the Ring opens next month. There you'll see what a troll SHOULD be.)

And Potter brings out the worst in composer John Williams. His overdramatic and redundant themes sound like a parody of his earlier work, ripping off Schindler's List (the main theme is only a few notes different), Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and above all, Hook. At times the music drowns out action and even dialogue, getting emotional so you don't have to, telling you "THIS IS SCARY!" "THIS IS SAD!" "THIS IS HAPPY!" 

Since Columbus can't offer us anything interesting to replace Rowling's peppy narrative, the movie ends up being a far inferior experience, a big moving-picture book with very little storytelling... just a bunch of introductions and tests to be passed.  The central plot of the book...Harry's predestined conflict with Voldemort... is shoved aside until the last few moments of a very very long movie.

But the script and the sets make it all worthwhile. Steve Kloves' adaptation really moves, and it's full of good humor. The sets are distractingly gorgeous. The paintings on the walls in Hogwarts move, just as they do in the book, and some of them are hauntingly beautiful. The perfect DVD would allow you to enlarge and enjoy the drama in each of those museum-quality frames. The children have good chemistry, and I look forward to seeing them grow up in the sequels*which, by the way, are already being produced.

* * *

P.S.  A few words about the controversy, for those worried about the effect of the "magic" in Harry Potter's world upon children.  QUIT WORRYING AND INVESTIGATE FOR YOURSELF. Armed with careful discernment, you will find little relationship between the magic of the books and real witchcraft as it is practiced in the world today. Furthermore, Scripture has a lot more to say on the subject than protesters want to admit.

In Deuteronomy 18:10-12, we are indeed exhorted by God, "There shall not be found among you anyone that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination ... or an enchanter or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard ... For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord." 

This verse admonishes us not to BECOME witches or sorcerers.  It does NOT say we cannot use the fanciful idea of magic, which is far different from real-world wickedness, as a fun and whimsical literary device to represent mystery and intangible things like virtue, bravery, and the abuse of power.Indeed, if you find your children pursuing a serious interest in the Occult, then you should challenge them with conversation and questions about how they perceive the difference between fairy tales and reality. Parents who read fairy tales to children and teach them how to interpret them will be a step ahead of those who let television and media do the babysitting. But I have yet to hear of any children who, after reading Harry, has done anything more unusual than START READING MORE BOOKS. 

The Bible has more to say, though, something that you won't hear on the video Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged

David Bruce at Hollywood Jesus suggests how the Apostle Paul might respond to such popular phenomena: "Zeus was considered a demon by certain early Christians. They protested Zeus, destroying his images and statues. They burned books about Zeus and warned others to avoid Zeus. There are Christians today who want to do the same thing to Harry Potter images, books and movies and for the same reasons. Yet the Apostle Paul approach to Zeus was very different. Standing before the Council in Athens, Paul said. '...For in him we live and move and exist. As one of your own poets says, 'We are his offspring.'" (Acts 17:28) * So the approach Paul used was to use Zeus, and not trash Zeus. However I fear there will be too many Christians will participate in a Harry Potter/Zeus Witch Hunt." Bruce concludes with a passionate plea: "Please, let's end the Witch Hunts! Use Harry Potter for the glory of God, just like Paul used Zeus for the glory of God. Please! Let's end the insanity. Enough already."

Our enemy does indeed seek ways in which to lure us and our children into error. But when we begin erasing the line between the childlike love of imaginary magic and the ritualistic practices of real witchcraft, we threaten to lose a great heritage of storytelling that has influenced our understanding of good and evil for centuries. If we boycott Harry Potter because of a faint association with real and immoral magical practices, think of the other books that then, by default, deserve the same fate. You might find some of your own favorites there. Merlin is a wizard too-should we burn all of our King Arthur books? Real white rabbits don't inspire children to crawl down holes looking for Wonderland. None of the children in my church saw Peter Pan and then tried to jump out a window thinking they could fly. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves has not produced any poison apples in sack lunches, nor has Cinderella provoked children to cast spells on mice. In South Carolina's The State newspaper, editorial writer John Monk suggested "You might as well say Gone With The Wind teaches young readers to be slave owners, or Treasure Island entices children to be pirates." (The Bible itself has its share of heroes gifted supernaturally. While they were used by God, might they not also inspire children to desire miraculous powers?) 

By fourth or fifth grade, most children can distinguish the world of fiction from reality. Before that age, their chief source of understanding is YOU. 

These magical gifts of Harry Potter and his friends are symbols, metaphors, a fictional language that give us a way of describing mysterious things about our own world, intangible things like good, evil, virtue, hatred, and talent. Pay attention to how the hero responds to the temptation to abuse power, and you'll find the lesson of the story. It is the Darth Vader-ish villain who snarls, "There is no good and evil; there is only power, and those too weak to seek it." Harry bravely disagrees.

Parents should definitely strive to teach children that just because they see something in a movie or on television doesn't mean it's a good idea to do the same thing in real life. Harry Potter, like Lewis's Narnia and Tolkien's Middle-Earth, gives us a great opportunity to teach children how to understand metaphor and symbol. I am one of many Christians who grew up on fairy tales as much as Bible Stories, and who found scriptural truths reinforced in most of them. No one in my community of childhood friends has gone on to practice witchcraft or wizardry. They do, however, have stronger, better developed imaginations, and this gives them in many cases a greater ability to understand the power of literary metaphor, and a greater capacity to believe in what God can do.
 

Jeffrey Overstreet 11/19/2001
 

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Looking Closer  web page and in The Crossing, a magazine for Christian artists.  He is also the editor of a weekly column at ChristianityToday.com called Film Forum, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association. You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com
   
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