In a sense, Chris Columbus took on the world’s easiest filmmaking job when he signed on to direct Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Film industry insiders and critic-types sniffed when the director of Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire grabbed the reins to J.K. Rowling’s best-selling series of young adult books, grousing that Columbus didn’t have the vision to do the Harry Potter phenomenon justice. What would he do when he couldn’t dress Harry up in drag, or have him slap his face with aftershave and scream into a mirror?
It was possible to look at the situation another way, however—that a director with “vision” was exactly what the film didn’t need. The material wouldn’t just be the star of Harry Potter; it would be an 800-pound gorilla of a superstar. Here was one of the most anticipated book-to-film translations since Gone With the Wind, with an audience ready to devour it instantly. You didn’t want a visionary running the Potter show. You wanted a simple film craftsman. Columbus would merely need to manage his actors and get the hell out of the way.
But Columbus didn’t quite grasp this job description. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Chris Columbus strains to create spectacle where it already exists. And along the way, a story with a sly edge and primal mythological appeal morphs into just another special effects-filled Hollywood romp.
The parents among you will certainly already know that Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) begins the story as an orphan living with his cruel aunt and uncle in Surrey. On his 11th birthday, Harry receives an invitation to attend Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, along with the surprising revelation that his dead parents were magical folk themselves, slain by the dark wizard Voldemort. Assisted by the gentle giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Harry prepares to depart for his first year at Hogwarts, where he makes new friends, like Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and old enemies.
The young audience members, of course, already know all those friends and enemies, as well as every location and situation that Harry Potter has to offer. They’ve had pictures in their heads for years, and Columbus does a splendid job of giving physical shape to those mental pictures. He has cast the film flawlessly, led by Radcliffe and his winning grin, an effortlessly teddy bear-ish Coltrane and a grandfatherly Richard Harris as Hogwarts’ headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Stuart Craig’s production design enchants the tilting columns of the wizard commercial district Diagon Alley, and the shifting staircases of Hogwarts’ dormitories. It’s a lovely, lavish production, photographed by Oscar-winner John Seale (The English Patient) with a warm, candlelit glow.
It is, as well, a 21st century-model big-budget adventure. The airborne wizards’ game of quidditch becomes a zipping, swooping theme park ride with action only occasionally discernible. Confrontations with a surly mountain troll and murderous chess pieces threaten our young protagonists, and digital effects render characters occasionally invisible, or disintegrating, or as creepy, artificial-looking computer-animated versions of themselves. There’s nothing J.K. Rowling could imagine that technology can’t bring to life on a theater screen.
That is, at least where physical details are concerned. Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves prove meticulously faithful to the source material when it comes to the people, places and things of Harry Potter, leaving out only relatively minor bits like the mandrake plants that have live babies as roots. Columbus directs the film with an eye to its key set pieces. He sets a scene up, gets his payoff, and moves on.
The missing mystical ingredient in Columbus’ Harry Potter is the element that made Rowling’s books such an extraordinary success in the first place—their archetypal familiarity. Like the best and most beloved of children’s stories, Harry Potter sends an orphaned hero on a journey to discover truth about his parentage and about himself, mixing in some fantasy and a bit of ominous darkness. Rowling’s Harry is nothing less than Luke Skywalker re-imagined as an adolescent—yet another manifestation of mythology guru Joseph Campbell’s “hero with a thousand faces.”
Columbus, however, never appears particularly interested in Harry’s hero-journey. In fact, despite the fact that Daniel Radcliffe occupies the screen for nearly the entire film, Harry as a character often seems like an afterthought to all the cinematic wizardry going on around him. Every time Columbus swoops in for another reaction close-up on a beaming face, or cranks up John Williams’ obtrusive score, you feel him punching up the places where he wants movie audiences to applaud, rather than pointing them to where he wants the narrative to take them next. He’s thinking like a filmmaker, but not like a storyteller.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is about as critic-proof as a movie gets, destined for a spot among the highest-grossing films of all time. Children stayed raptly attentive throughout its two-and-a-half-hour running time, and then roared and clapped as the film ended. They’ll come wanting to see their favorite characters come to life on a movie screen, and there’s little chance that the movie won’t please them.
So maybe Chris Columbus did do the job he signed on to do. He has made a crowd-pleaser, and—unless the planets radically shift in their orbits—a Warner Bros. bottom-line-pleaser. But he hasn’t gotten out of the way of his material. He has imposed on it the style and rhythm that he knows best and feels most comfortable with—the style and rhythm of by-the-numbers Hollywood entertainment. In making his Harry Potter, Columbus has tried too hard to make it a blockbuster movie event, his kid-friendly Gone With the Wind. The truth is, he never had to try at all.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (PG) HH1/2 Directed by Chris Columbus. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Robbie Cotrane and Richard Harris.