Just Mild About Harry

Potter putters through

Given the apparent stakes—Western civilization and so forth—it's a shame that Columbus and the talented screenwriter Steve Kloves didn't trump Bloom's rhetoric by giving all those Harry Potter "reader non-readers" the film they deserve, a movie that takes the book's facile pleasures seriously. Kloves (who also adapted Wonder Boys, as well as writing and directing Flesh and Bone and The Fabulous Baker Boys) cleaves so closely to Rowling's template that he forgets to take the necessary liberties, like a few snappish lines to break the monotony of Harry's ad nauseam amazement, bafflement, wonder. In keeping true to the book's otherworldly details, which they enumerate like worrisome accountants—Hagrid still falls from the sky, while Harry glides through it—Kloves and Columbus lose sight of the fact that what makes the books ultimately work is the kid himself, his old-world magic and new-age childishness. But while he flies, this Harry never soars, and so soon the eye and heart stray to Stuart Craig's production design, with its bewitched ceiling and airborne candles, and to the underused supporting cast—Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, John Hurt, Ian Hart, Julie Walters—who flicker on and off the screen, as fleeting and ephemeral as Hogwarts ghosts.

It's a clichť that pulpier books make for better movies than classics, but that's only true if the filmmakers evince suitable irreverence for the original material. On their first go-around, the people who own Harry Potter (more movies are promised) have done more than try to stay true to Rowling's orphan. They've tried to turn him into something important, to inflate what is essentially a pop phenomenon with meaning. When Harry sits in a window bathed in moonlight and John Williams chokes out another forlorn chord, you could be forgiven for thinking a reel of A.I. Artificial Intelligence had been slipped onto the projector. The music is one wretched clue to the film's great expectations (though, somehow, the expectations seem more for the potential franchise than the character) and the filmmaker's inability to trust the integrity of Rowling's creation. But Columbus has none of Spielberg's natural artistry and not nearly enough of his killer pop instincts. He found the right torque for Home Alone (and lucked out with a child actor who made a little nasty go a very long way), but here he seems to think he has been granted custody of a classic, not a Zeitgeist jackpot.

There's one person, at least, who knows better: as Snape, Harry's venal professor of potions, Alan Rickman skulks about in neck-to-ankle black and a Prince Valiant shag looking very much like John Barrymore on a Hamlet drunk. He's ridiculous, but he's also a fright—a touch of evil, a whiff of grandeur, a wonderfully malevolent jester to publishing's crown prince.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was directed by Chris Columbus; written by Steve Kloves, based on the book by J.K. Rowling; produced by David Heyman; and stars Daniel Radcliffe, Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith. Now playing countywide.

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