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Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, written by Steve Kloves from the book by J.K. Rowling, directed by Chris Columbus, 2001, 150 min.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is a perfectly competent adventure movie, one that captures the plot of the book adequately and is in general well cast. My main objection to the movie version of Rowling's famous book is that the tone doesn't match up precisely. Yes, Rowling's wonderful moments of dark wit are here, but the book is also quite funny while the movie is much more somber. But this is a criticism without much strength, because the movie could have easily fallen into goofiness or cheesiness; instead, the filmmaking team and cast stick to a sense of dignity, which has been sorely missing in most fantasy movies in recent memory. That's not much of a comparison, of course, and to put the inevitable questions to rest, yes, I prefer The Fellowship of the Ring to Harry Potter, mainly because the Tolkien adaptation has a greater mastery of varying tones, from dignity all the way through to earthy humour. I don't say that to belittle Harry Potter, as the two movies have vastly different audiences and intentions. And I still find it strange that the year 2001, with its crop of lousy science fiction movies, would produce two fantasy movies of such strength.

In any case, the story of Harry Potter will be familiar to anyone who has read the book. Harry Potter is an orphan, growing up with his aunt and uncle, the mean Dursleys. Harry is mistreated, his birthday ignored, and his mail intercepted. That is, until he gets a letter from Hogwarts, telling him that he has been accepted for the first year of training as a wizard. His uncle tries to stop this letter from reaching Harry, but magical messages can't be stopped that easily. Eventually, a messenger from Hogwarts comes to get Harry; the messenger is the rather imposing Hagrid, school groundskeeper. Hagrid takes Harry shopping for his wizardly supplies, Harry's first encounter with the ancient and mysterious world that has always been hidden from Muggles, the non-magical, like his aunt and uncle. Harry makes some friends on the train to Hogwarts, Ron and Hermione, and an enemy in the form of Draco Malfoy. Once at Hogwarts, the main part of the story begins, after what is quite a lengthy prelude, but even here there is no overarching plot immediately apparent. Much of the movie from here on in is like a slice of life at Hogwarts. So, Harry has some classes, and gets along agreeably with some teachers, and disagreeably with others. He becomes part of his house's Quidditch team, a game that involves flying around on brooms and scoring points. And the Stone of the title shows up eventually, as part of a plot on Harry's life by the same evil wizard who killed Harry's parents.

As I said, the filmmakers found actors who suit their roles, especially the key roles of Harry himself and Hagrid. Hagrid provides the majority of the funny moments in the movie, and I'm looking forward to seeing Hagrid in the adaptations of the subsequent books. Somewhat surprisingly, the other child actors do a believable job of their characters, in particular Ron and Hermione. The adult roles are filled by dependable British actors, like Hagrid as mentioned, and Dumbledore, head of Hogwarts. It would have been a misstep of colossal proportions to Americanize any part of this movie, and thankfully this does not happen.

The special effects in this movie tend to support the storyline, which is a good thing. The magic is sold to the audience by the excellent acting, mostly the adults; they carry the movie in a way that the child actors simply cannot. The background of the movie's world is portrayed consistently and interestingly, which is no mean feat.

I don't know if Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone deserves the box office success that it has received, but perhaps it was inevitable. However, all of the commercial hype and big screen razzle-dazzle still doesn't overshadow Rowling's accomplishment to my mind, that of creating a warm and wonderful book. The first Harry Potter book is the genuine article, and the movie doesn't supplant it.

DVD Note: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is available in a 2-disc DVD set; this is not a collector's item for adults, though, but rather a jumble of virtual tours, interactive games, hidden menu options, digital trading cards, and other stuff for kids. Grown-ups get seven deleted scenes (which require about a 10-minute quest through the interactive games to access) and a 15-minute featurette.

Also see the review of the book this movie is based on.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, written by Steve Kloves from the novel by J.K. Rowling, directed by Chris Columbus, 2002, 160 min.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, an adaptation of the second of the famous Harry Potter novels, is just like the first movie: faithful but flat, long but not terribly involving, and suspiciously lacking in affect. This time out, the movie is longer, with the only result of making the audience shoulder more of a burden; two hours and forty minutes is an excessive running length for a movie intended for children.

The movie is the story of Harry’s second year at Hogwarts, the school for wizardry and witchcraft. Harry escapes his Muggle family in summer to live with his friends, the Weasleys, who are a bunch of gloriously messy wizards and love Harry to pieces. On the way back to Hogwarts, Harry and Ron have a problem at the station, and so they have to take a flying car to get to school. Back at school, more trouble soon happens, as it seems that someone is paralysing children, and Harry is blamed. And there seems to be some prejudice against kids like Hermione, who is magical but was born to non-magical parents, known derisively as mudbloods. But that theme is soon forgotten, folded into the general rottenness of the villains, the Malfoy family.

Kenneth Branagh scores big with his portrayal of the vain professor Gilderoy Lockhart, one of the most annoying characters in the book. Here, Lockhart is all self-assured smiles and hilarious self-importance. He’s yet another obstacle for Harry and friends to overcome, but he makes the role his own with obvious glee. The other irritating character in the book, the boy named Colin who idolizes Harry, is thankfully much toned down here.

For a movie with dragons, flying cars, paralysed bodies, Quidditch matches, and tons of magic, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is chore to watch. I hope the subsequent adaptations of Rowling material take a closer look at what makes a good movie, and apply some wisdom, rather than slavishly following every aspect of a book. I never thought I would say that!

Also see the review of the book this movie is based on.

First posted: February 1, 2002; Last modified: March 24, 2004

Copyright © 2002-2004 by James Schellenberg (

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