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[whitespace] 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'
Lighting the Way Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) changes a young boy's life in 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.'

Good Wizard

Uneven 'Harry Potter' casts reasonably enjoyable spell

By Richard von Busack

IN ONE SENSE, the Harry Potter craze proves that latent Anglophilia is still alive even in the youngest American children. George Orwell, in his 1938 essay "Boy's Weeklies," wrote, "It is quite clear that there are tens and score of thousands of people to whom every detail at a 'posh' public school is wildly thrilling and romantic. They happened to be outside that mystic world of quadrangles and house-colors, but they yearn after it, daydream about it, live mentally in it for hours at a stretch." In J.K. Rowling's famous books, the schools are sexually and racially integrated. Still, the edge of that public-school fantasy (and the yearning for snobbery it feeds) isn't completely concealed by the appeal of the fantasy.


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Anyone with children knows the story of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and the film version sticks fairly close to the book. The orphaned Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is rescued from mistreatment by his terrible uncle and aunt (Fiona Shaw and Richard Griffiths) on the boy's 11th birthday, when a woolly giant named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) swoops down to escort Harry to Hogwarts, the world's leading school for sorcerers and wizards. There, Harry makes friends: the pretty, snippy but well-educated Hermione (Emma Watson, who quite steals the show from its hero), and the woeful Ron (Rupert Grint). During his first term at Hogwarts, Harry uncovers a school secret involving an evil wizard's attempt to find immortality.

The first hour is crammed rigid with characters. As a ghost, John Cleese only has time to say, in essence, "Hello, I'm a ghost." But two things--a suave, touching conversation with a boa constrictor and a street of wizards' shops hidden behind an enchanted brick wall--give the film a mysterious cinematic charge. Once on campus, the film takes off, thanks to the professors. There's Zoe Wanamaker, a yellow-eyed ringer for Laurie Anderson, as the broom-flying instructor. Alan Richman is show-stopping as the potions instructor, an expert on poisons dressed in a black Borgia costume.

The final hour is Indiana Jones at Eton--creature-filled and kinetic, with a "living chess" board. All this is paced so quickly that the children will clamor for repeat viewing. On these repeat viewings, bring aspirin: the John Williams score is a real earache. I can't call Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone an equal of The Wizard of Oz, as Roger Ebert has. Let's note that Dorothy--and Shrek, for that matter--wasn't stranded royalty like Harry, but a commoner hero from an obscure background who made her own way. With luck, what stirs children is the thought of learning, and not the dining halls, the uniforms and the rigged house-competitions overseen by headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris). Strange that these books have become a phenomenon, right when our own schools are in underfunded disrepair. Perhaps the children are telling us something?

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (PG; 152 min.), directed by Chris Columbus, written by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling, photographed by John Seale and starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and John Cleese, opens Friday everywhere.

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From the November 15-21, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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