July 8, 2011

THE SHOWBUZZDAILY RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”


Whatever one can say about Chris Columbus–and there’ll be plenty of less than glowing words about him below–he’s the man who cast Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as the leads in 2001’s HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, and for that Warners should name a building after him.  The three grew over 10 years into plausible physical embodiments of their characters (the studio probably would have liked Radcliffe a little taller, but it hasn’t hurt the character; and Watson is really more beautiful than Hermione is meant to be, which in Hollywood is called “casting”), but it was more than that.  In a decade notable for scandals involving one young star after another, they’ve all remained impossibly professional–when Radcliffe disclosed last week that he’d had a drinking problem during some of the latter years, it seemed to come as much of a surprise to the UK press as to everyone else.  

Oh, and they could act–in fact, they’ve proven themselves able to evolve and deepen their performances as each successive chapter required more of them. Even more remarkably, it wasn’t just the stars who had that capability, but the young supporting actors too–even Bonnie Wright, who as Ginny Weasley has maybe 30 total seconds on screen to start.  In Sorcerer’s Stone, the first and weakest of the series, the stars are appealing but show only hints of their potential.  Columbus has them all giving fairly typical child performances for the most part, with too many broad double-takes and expressions of awe mixed with astonishment; occasionally, though, we see the steely resolve and crack comic timing they’d all develop as the films progressed.

Columbus (along with producer David Heyman and Warners itself, of course) made other good decisions.  No expense was spared on the superb cast of adults:  Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, John Cleese, Richard Griffiths, Julie Walters, Fiona Show, and Robbie Coltrane were just some of the great actors who caught the train to Hogwarts.  Steve Kloves, whose previous work, however good, hadn’t touched the fantasy genre (Racing With the Moon, The Fabulous Baker Boys) became the workhorse of the series, writing all but one of the scripts that had to pare down J.K. Rowling’s enormous, intricate stories to feature length. The production was first-class in every respect, even if the special effects from 2001, particularly the Troll and the somewhat embarrassing Quidditch game, look awfully dated today.  (The baby dragon looks good, though.)

Sorcerer’s Stone is quite entertaining, an extraordinary universe capably presented; there’s just not anything special about it as a film.  Columbus has cinematographer John Seale shoot Stuart Craig’s enormous sets without any personality, using long pans and tracking shots that seem designed only to show off the scale of the production.  Columbus bungles the opening sequences with the Dursleys, playing them for comedy without any of the dark undercurrents Rowling brings to those scenes, and thus flattening some of Harry’s emotions that follow.  Because this is the first of the series, there’s a huge amount of exposition that has to be explained–Diagon Alley!  Gringott’s!  Muggles!  Hogwarts!  Voldemort!  Dumbledore!  Snape!  Quidditch!–and the plot itself, Voldemort trying to use the Stone so he can come back to life, doesn’t really kick in until the second half of the movie.  While the picture is never boring, Columbus often coasts from sequence to sequence with indifferent pacing.  Some of the storytelling is surprisingly clumsy, with important plot developments turning on Hagrid blurting things out and then saying “I shouldn’t have told you that,” Hermione forgetting that she’s had the book they’ve all been searching for all along, and the unlikely “detention” that consists of sending the kids to wander alone through the Dark Forest late at night.

Sorcerer’s Stone provides a decent foundation for the rest of the series, and to the credit of everyone involved, despite its massive success, there was a commitment to improve the franchise going forward.  Watching it now, it’s best thought of as the picture you have to get through to get to the good ones.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."