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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:
A blockbuster that lives up to the hype

MOVIES: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, directed by Chris Columbus, written by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J. K. Rowling, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson.

Review by Helen Scott | November 30, 2001 | Page 9

GOING TO see a hyped movie is often a crushing disappointment. How often do you watch a film that, despite millions of dollars and immense individual talent, is ruined by overused plots, cliched endings or recycled racist, sexist, antigay stereotypes?

But every so often something comes along that actually lives up to the hype: such a film is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

The immense popular success of J.K. Rowling's series of books made Harry Potter an obvious choice for a box-office smash hit, and massive resources were poured into recreating it on the big screen.

The sets and special effects are superb. The first view of Hogwarts School drew gasps from the audience during the screening I attended.

While some moments in the film matched the pictures in my imagination, others were far better. The invisibility cloak, for example, that allows Harry and Ron to wonder around Hogwarts unseen; the Quidditch Snitch, buzzing around like a golden hummingbird; and the terrifying warlike giant chess game were all beyond anything I could have conjured up.

The casting is inspired: Alan Rickman as the snide, suspicious Potions Professor Severus Snape; Julie Walter as the harried working-class mother of Ron Weasley; and John Cleese's cameo appearance as the school ghost, Nearly-Headless Nick.

The actors playing the children are also perfect, expressing volumes in their facial expressions and small gestures. Ron's bemused, skeptical frown; Hermione's impatient, exasperated toss of the head; and Harry's serious, sad, steady gaze all captured the book's characters.

Like all works of fantasy, Harry Potter is both an escape from and, at the same time, a mirror of our own society. Orphan Harry's obnoxious Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon Dursley, who live in the mock-tudor suburban home on Privet Drive in the town of Little Whinging (to "whinge" in British English means to complain for no good reason), perfectly capture the world of petty bourgeois respectability.

In the magic world, Hogwarts is clearly in the long tradition in literature and film that uses the boarding school as a microcosm of society--from Tom Brown's School Days to the radical film If.

While the magical realm is in many ways wonderful--the delicious conjured feasts in the huge dining room, the owls that descend with mail from home--it also contains danger and lurking threats. While the headmaster, Dumbledore, is benign, many of the authority figures are anything but, and you can never be sure that justice will triumph.

The film does have some flaws. The music at times becomes intrusive in a Disney sort of way. And my one real gripe was that the film muted the sharp class divisions between Draco Malfoy and his cohorts and Harry's friends--the poor Ron Weasley and Hermione, who is the daughter of muggles, or non-wizards.

The omission of their first meeting in Diagon Alley's wand shop was a real loss. But certainly actor Tom Felton captures the vicious snobbery of Draco with his sneers and warnings about mixing with "the wrong sort."

All popular culture under capitalism has within it a contradiction between commercialization and the aspirations of the mass of humanity. Ever-present box-office constraints severely restrict artistic expression.

But at the same time, people want to make and see films that capture our imagination and entertain us. That's why even blockbuster hits with market tie-ins and multimillion-dollar contracts are more than just about the corporate media industry. Harry Potter perfectly illustrates this.

As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once wrote, "the longing for amusement, distraction, sightseeing and laughter is the most legitimate desire of human nature." The packed, diverse matinee audience I watched the film with seemed to agree that Harry Potter successfully captivated and allowed us, for a few hours, to escape the horrors of the real world.

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