Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Review
Harry Potter, his parents killed by the evil Voldemort, is brought up by his Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths), Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) and spoiled cousin Dudley (Harry Melling). After years of neglect, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) receives an invitation to Hogwarts, a school for wizards...
First off, a confession. At the time of seeing this film, I hadn't read any of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels (seven planned, four so far published). I will leave comparisons of book and film to others: this review will concentrate entirely on the film version, which will surely carve out a substantial slice of the Christmas box office (along with the first of the three parts of Lord of the Rings and not really very much else). And is it any good? Yes. Minor nitpicks aside, I think it delivers.
Apparently an attempt to film the entire novel resulted in a four-hour film, which was cut down to the present two and a half hours, including about ten minutes of end credits. (I predict a lot of deleted scenes when this comes out on DVD!) That's a long time for very young children, who may find certain scenes scary. Also, parents might wish to note some very mild language: nothing stronger than "bloody", "bugger" and "arse". Older children, say seven and up, should have no problems enjoying this (certainly those in the cinema where I saw this seemed to), not to mention many adults.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is really two films in one. As the introduction to an eventual seven-part series, the film takes some time in establishing who's who, what's what and where's where. Then, an hour and a half in, it shifts gears and brings in a plot, namely the search for the Philosopher's Stone of the title, which takes up the remaining three quarters of an hour. That turning point is the only time when the pace threatens to flag. As for the missing scenes, I only noticed one hole in the plot, early on: Harry and his adoptive family's move from Little Whinging, Surrey to what looks like a castle by a stormy sea, is under-explained.
Most of the adult roles are little more than cameos, or introductions of characters intended to be more important in later instalments, so the film depends on its three young leads. Rupert Grint and Emma Watson turn in capable performances as Harry's friends and fellow trainee wizards Ron and Hermione. At times, Daniel Radcliffe doesn't quite seem natural in front of the camera, though for most of the time he's engaging enough. Columbus has a habit of cutting to reaction shots of Harry laughing, cheering and so on, which becomes annoying. It's not as if we can't work out for ourselves whether something is funny, triumphant or whatever.
Columbus was Rowling's choice of director. A Spielberg protege, in his previous films he's indulged in his mentor's bad habits, of overly-manipulative, sentimental button-pushing. But remember this is the man who wrote Gremlins (Joe Dante's contribution to that film notwithstanding), and there's nothing cosy about the ending of Home Alone, which he directed. Maybe it's all in the script, and let's be thankful that they brought a talented writer in, namely Steve Kloves. It could have been far worse. With a solid framework and plenty going on, Columbus concentrates on telling the story and maintaining a brisk pace, which he does. Technically, the film is first-rate as you'd expect. John Seale's camerawork isn't quite up to his very high standards, but Stuart Craig's production design is stunning.
So there it is, the last-but-one blockbuster of 2001, which gets a month's run before Lord of the Rings (which skews to an older audience) arrives. Very good entertainment by any standard. As I write, the sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is in production.