Think of the “Harry Potter” film as “When Harry Met Sally, and David and Kameelah, and Ron and Ahmad and …,” because just about every kid is going to want to see this long-awaited movie.
Most of them will be pleased. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” doesn’t deepen our appreciation of the book, as a great movie adaptation such as “James and the Giant Peach” or “The Little Princess” does, but it doesn’t trash it, either, as “The Grinch” did. “Harry” is a handsome, faithful, cautious film that delivers in most of the ways you’d hope it would.
The first half is the best. The scene in which Harry, an 11-year-old Brit who goes to a wizard school called Hogwarts, shops for school supplies in a secret lair called Diagon Alley, is outstanding. Full of magic and humor, this sequence (as well as the one after it, when Harry departs for school on the 9-} Platform) is as wondrous and inventive as you imagined when you read the book.
“Harry’s” cast is full of perfect matches. Robbie Coltrane earns top honors as the lovable giant, Hagrid, but I also fell for Alan Rickman’s mesmerizing Professor Snape, whose romantically wasted paleness suggests that he spends too much time writing heroic couplets to bother with eating or walking around in daylight, and Emma Watson’s saucy, bossy performance as Harry’s persnickety pal, Hermione.
The movie is a triumph of art direction, with scads of fabulous images (a beautifully simple talking hat; the spooky old castle, Hogwarts; the tricky staircases that keep switching direction; Harry’s cramped cupboard of a bedroom) that remind us what we loved about the book.
Speaking of which, there’s the splendid Daniel Radcliffe as Harry himself. Radcliffe gives a performance of becoming modesty, which is a good thing since Harry – rich, handsome, popular, gifted with supernatural powers and probably a love machine by the time we get to book seven – would be insufferable if he weren’t so modest.
Where the movie starts to go off track is when Harry and his mates play the hockey-on-broomsticks game of Quidditch.
The special effects teams have done a zippy job of visualizing the game, but after a first half that relies on inventive, reality-anchored art direction, the last half of “Harry” is dominated by special effects. As a result, this is where the movie starts to be less about people, more about computers.
In the second half of the movie, as Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione, face an increasingly vicious series of foes, the movie says good-bye to the slower, character-based pace of the first 90 minutes and turns into a special-effects adventure film.
There’s nothing wrong with having Harry make like Londoniana Jones, but the story isn’t as interesting here (this is true of J.K. Rowling’s book, too – the sorcerer’s stone mystery peters out), and the quirks of the characters begin to fade into generic heroism.
It’s here, too, where the inevitable cuts made in the transition from book to film have the greatest impact (Neville, Harry’s clumsy classmate, plays a crucial role, but he’s given such short shrift earlier in the movie that we barely remember him).
Everyone who read the book is going to miss something.
I’d like to see more of the lovable Weasley family who befriend Harry, for instance, but I’m in luck, because they’re featured more prominently in the second “Potter” book, and it’s already being filmed by the same people who made this film. Starting today, we have exactly a year to wait for “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”