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I’m a Weasley man myself. Geriatric rat for a pet, hand-me-down magic wand, trouble with the ladies—yep, that’s my boy. For all you curmudgeons unwilling to embrace the mania surrounding Harry Potter (a naysaying legion growing just as quickly as the pro-wizard movement), Ron Weasley is the titular hero’s loyal chum and, God bless him, a true fatalist at heart. But more important, Weasley, not lightning-scarred superstar Harry, is author J.K. Rowling’s lovable-loser portal character, an aw-jeez Everykid who inevitably tugs even the most reluctant readers into Rowling’s fiendishly addictive adventures of wizards-in-training.
Oh sure, I once shared the same reservations that anti-Potterites like to throw in the face of the helplessly hooked: Talk of Tolkien makes me wanna pound on nerds, Dungeons & Dragons is nothing more than a support group for lunch-money victims, and children’s books, no matter how good, are still children’s books. But you hardened sorts who understandably cringe at the union of fantasy and literature—and who have somehow managed to exit Borders without a sack full of Potterbilia—should trust me on this: Give Weasley a shot and he’ll be your personal guide through four deceptively layered, utterly charming tales, potions and dragons and cloaks of invisibility be damned.
Surprisingly, director Chris Columbus appears to be a Weasley man, too. (I always took the sap-happy American hack for an obvious Neville Longbottom fan.) In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the most widely anticipated event flick since George Lucas’ craptastic latest, Weasley is played with sweet preteen dorkiness by exceptionally named newcomer Rupert Grint. Grint dutifully derails any ominous signs of sentimental mush or message moments with a roll of his eyes and a sarcastic quip. And lord knows Columbus needed to be kept in check: The B-list helmsman has proved to be the weepiest of muggles when it comes to making movies: Mrs. Doubtfire, Stepmom, Bicentennial Man…yeesh, would somebody please get this guy a friggin’ tissue?
But thanks to scene-swiper Grint’s schmaltz-cautious Weasley and the chilled sensibilities of the British Rowling—a control freak with magic stones of her own—Columbus has been forced to retire his Kleenexian ways and stay faithful to the joyfully sinister storytelling already in place. (Columbus, it should be noted, was responsible for writing Gremlins and Young Sherlock Holmes, so he’s not completely new to the dark side.) Which is not to say, however, that celluloid Harry is as satisfying as paper Harry; that’s not even an issue. But with the exception of a lackluster prologue and a hurried finale that will leave newbies scratching their heads, Columbus’ 150-minute adaptation rarely fails to be both lovely to look at and bloody good fun to boot.
OK, real quick now: Let’s pretend that some poor bastard who hasn’t left his basement apartment since 1997 doesn’t know the basic Potter premise. For his first 10 years, gentle Harry Potter, whose parents, he’s told, were killed in a car crash, has been living in the suburban London home (No. 4 Privet Drive, to be exact) of the Dursleys: harrumphing Uncle Vernon, screeching Aunt Petunia, and cousin Dudley, a snotty, fatty Wonka brat. Void of redeeming qualities, the Dursleys treat Harry as the lowliest of servants and make him sleep in a dusty cupboard under the stairs. But lo and behold, as Harry’s 11th birthday approaches, mysterious letters (lotsa letters from lotsa carrier owls, no less) begin supernaturally flooding the Dursleys’ home, pouring down the chimney, bursting through the mail slot.
When the wax-sealed missives fail to stop—and the exterior of their house is carpeted in a flock of owls—the Dursleys escape to a secret hideaway on a storm-ravaged island. And just when matters are at their bleakest, Harry is rescued by a gentle giant named Hagrid (played by a beastly, hirsute Robbie Coltrane), who comes bearing both good news—Harry’s been enrolled at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—and bad—his mother and father were not killed in an accident but murdered by, well, let’s just call him He Who Must Not Be Named, the baddest of the baddies who’s not quite done with the Boy Who Lived.
Although he’s just a few years away from stretching into the spitting image of Oasis sot Noel Gallagher, Daniel Radcliffe, with his round wire-rimmed specs and mop top, is truly the perfect Potter. His acting is understated and appropriately naive. And his smile, which grows larger the further he gets from his old life, is a pleasure to watch, especially when he’s first walking through the Dickens-fabulous Diagon Alley, a hidden village of wizardly Staples stores where Harry loads up on school supplies: spell books, a flying broomstick, and, of course, a magic wand.
Oscar-winning production designer Stuart (Dangerous Liaisons) Craig should garner another shiny statue for his renderings of Diagon Alley and the sprawling Hogwarts, a drafty medieval castle that’s aglow with only natural light (candles, torches, roaring fires) and features shape-shifting wall art and the trickiest set of stairs since Vertigo. Untrained or not, Radcliffe, Grint, and Emma Watson (who convincingly nails the know-it-allness of the boys’ partner-in-mischief, Hermione Granger) can’t help but be wide-eyed when engulfed by Craig’s otherworldly landscapes. And it’s a testament to veterans Richard Harris (as all-knowing Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore), Maggie Smith (as purse-lipped Professor McGonagall), and Alan Rickman (as wickedly droll Professor Snape) that they stroll Hogwarts’ gloomy-gorgeous grounds as if they’ve worked there forever.
Because we’re dealing with wizards and witches here—and the filmmakers are desperate to keep the wee ones squirmless for two and a half hours—not a scene whizzes by without colorful dollops of computer-generated trickery. There’s a baby dragon named Norbert who burns Hagrid’s beard, a living chess set in which captured pieces are crushed, and a full-grown mountain troll with serious sinus problems. My fave effect: the Sorting Hat, which, when placed on the head of a student, assigns him or her to one of Hogwarts’ various houses (count ’em off: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin); the rather surly brown chapeau frowns and growls while making its choices, and looks like a Muppety leftover from Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal days.
Unfortunately—and this is gonna piss off a lotta people—the flying lessons and the ballyhooed Quidditch match look pretty bluescreen-crummy, an unforgivable oversight given that the movie cost a rumored $150 million. (Quidditch, a sort-of cross between hockey and football, is a flying game played with quaffles, bludgers, and—oh, just read the damn books.) In the trailers, Quidditch was given only the most quick-peek of glances, and now we know why. And while we’re discussing the trouble with Harry: John Williams’ creepy, calliopic score is his most hummable film composition since the soundtrack to Raiders of the Lost Ark. But does it really have to be so sloppily slathered over each and every scene?
Anyway, Columbus, despite his steady streak of cinematic miscues, adeptly crams most of the novel’s juiciest details into the mix: Gringotts Bank, Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, and the Nimbus 2000 (“the fastest model yet”). For the die-hards who know exactly what’s coming in the later movies, he offers myriad look-fast treats, as well: Ginny Weasley, parselmouths, the Daily Prophet, and, alas, poor Scabbers. And if the director gives short shrift to both Harry’s relationship with peer-group foil Draco Malfoy (a perfectly slippery Tom Felton) and the silly little mystery of just who’s trying to swipe that sorcerer’s stone, so be it: The glorious getting there (the classes, the school dances, the little bursts of awkward romance) has always been the best part anyway.
So there you have it: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a crowd-pleasing tribute to Rowling’s imaginative achievements, a well-meaning gift for those in the know, an energetic entry for those fresh to the craze. Columbus’ best effort so far will keep fans properly sated until Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets shows up on screens. And, as perhaps the greater compliment, the movie will ultimately leave millions of wizard wannabes absolutely ravenous for Rowling’s fifth, and most certainly bewitching, twist to the tale. Here’s hoping Weasley gets himself a girlfriend. CP