Get used to the word “magic”; you’ll be hearing it a lot as the grosses for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone break all records and reach the stratosphere. I’ve never read any of those J.K. Rowling children’s novels the size of telephone books, and I usually avoid kids’ movies the way I avoid preschoolers who drag flu germs home to the dinner table from kindergarten incubators. But I’m here to tell you that there’s something about this cinematic Harry Potter stuff-a fanciful world of magic, sorcery and illusion with its own fervor, innocence, moral values, wisdom and nomenclature-that adds up to two and a half hours of pure, uninterrupted enchantment.
Everyone but me seems to know this world by heart, so I run the constant risk of revealing things you probably know already. For example, Muggles are ordinary people, uninitiated in the skills of magic and exasperatingly immune to the thrills of the imagination. I am a converted Muggle who has finally seen the light, so I now realize why the Harry Potter books have sold more than 100 million copies in more than 46 languages and generated the biggest frenzy in the history of publishing. For newcomers and devotees alike, the underlying fear that the movie might not live up to the book can now be laid to rest. The $125 million budget for this first of the Potter books on film (two more are planned, creating a franchise) has been so well spent that all challenges have been met.
From the first scene, in which a patrician witch named Minerva McGonagall (played to the hilt by Maggie Smith in her best beyond-the-prime-of-Miss-Jean-Brodie voice) arrives to deliver newborn infant Harry Potter-the orphaned son of two wizards, and therefore destined to be a famous wizard himself-to a dreary suburban home on Privet Drive in a village called Little Whinging, we are transported into a world of fanciful, gleeful fairy-tale illusion the likes of which have not been seen since The Wizard of Oz . Raised by his neglectful Aunt Petunia Dursley (Fiona Shaw) and his abusive Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths), Harry discovers on his unhappy 11th birthday that his world is about to change. He is rescued from the Muggles by an owl who delivers the mail and by a jolly giant named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), whose monastic rags are framed by a beard the size of an eagle’s nest that never loses its stature, even when torched by a freshly hatched dragon named Norbert.
Hagrid whisks Harry (a budding little star named Daniel Radcliffe, with round spectacles and eyes the size of blue robin’s eggs) off through a secret wall in London to the world of Diagon Alley, with sets and costumes right out of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop . There, he is to retrieve his inheritance from the stern goblins at Gringotts Bank and select his first wand from a shrewd old wand merchant (John Hurt) who cooks up a special baton for the future superstar sorcerer. From this spectacular setting, Harry is transported by train and ferry to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a majestic island castle in the middle of a splendid river. The school is run by kindly old Headmaster Dumbledore (Richard Harris, looking like Merlin of Camelot), and is where Harry and his two new comrades, prissy-mouthed Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and scruffy, all-thumbs Ronald Weasley (Rupert Grim), embark on a wild and wondrous adventure. I loved the nearly headless ghost (John Cleese); the dour, sinister Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), who teaches potions and spells with eyes of newt and wolfbane; and prim Madame Hooch (Zoë Wanamaker), the faculty adviser on how to fly through the air like Margaret Hamilton.
Hermione narrowly escapes from a rampaging mountain troll that breaks into the girl’s washroom like a cross between Mighty Joe Young and Jabba the Hutt. Harry becomes a champion at a sport called Quidditch, a mixture of cricket, soccer, rugby and basketball played by opposing teams from two of Hogwarts’ four student dorms on flying broomsticks. (Harry has a special state-of-the-art broomstick called a Nimbus 2000 with magic powers.) All three moppets are ecstatic over oil paintings that demand secret entry codes, invisible clocks, library books on famous 15th-century fiends, staircases that change position, a mirror that reflects the heart’s desires and a ghastly forest inhabited by werewolves that is the hiding place of the world’s most evil sorcerer-a demon from the Dark Side called Voldemort, who killed Harry’s loving parents. (In the fight between good and evil, parallels to Star Wars are inescapable.) To avenge the death of his parents, Harry must enter a trap door guarded by a three-headed man-eating dog, reach the dungeon and retrieve the sorcerer’s stone that is the source of Voldemort’s dreaded power. But first there’s the lethal, cathedral-sized chess board to cross-complete with pawns and queens who beat the crap out of each other. The whole thing makes Dungeons & Dragons look like a game of Old Maid.
There’s more, but the fun is in the discovery, with sumptuous cinematography, lavish costumes, spectacular sets created by Stuart Craig ( Gandhi and The English Patient ) and comic-book performances that somehow magically-there’s that word again-remain completely believable and real. The direction by Chris Columbus eschews sentimentality for true grit. The massive job of condensing so much action and plot into a coherent screenplay that still retains all of the book’s adventures without sacrificing any of the details is the work of Steve Kloves, a wonderful writer ( Wonder Boys ) and a skillful director himself ( The Fabulous Baker Boys ). They both do an exquisite job of creating a whopping entertainment that will appeal to anyone with a fanciful imagination and an unquenchable thirst for adventure.
The impressive cast competes with animatronics and computerized special effects with the greatest of ease. And little Daniel Radcliffe, who has to play it straight and neat and sweet as a lollipop while surrounded by eccentrics, meets impossible expectations with enviable valor. In time, Harry must test his capacity for loyalty, friendship, courage and love against the dark and powerful forces of black magic in a finale destined to leave audiences of all ages cheering.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone couldn’t arrive at a more appropriate time. When the world is full of sadness, it will brighten your smile. At a time of holiday recession, it may also tweak retail-consumer lethargy, big time. By Christmas, we’ll be subjected to such an avalanche of Harry Potter products, toys, coins, radios, trivia games, orange drinks, gimmicks and merchandise that we may all yell for mercy-but I doubt it. When they count the money, the trick of turning kid’s stuff into box-office gold is the kind of magic even the Muggles will understand.
Two Wild And Crazy Hours
From sublimely odd to disgustingly weird, we now examine Novocaine , a feature-film debut by writer-director David Atkins that is part film noir, part sleazeball comedy and a failure on all fronts. Novocaine is a movie that could use some. Steve Martin plays a dentist whose life is as antiseptic as his waiting room. Still, his business is profitable, and the affair he’s having with his gorgeous dental hygienist (Laura Dern) is the envy of the Young Men’s Business Association. Then the storm clouds appear with the arrival of a new patient who is an oversexed junkie (Helena Bonham Carter, with goth drag and eyes like a rabid raccoon). Suddenly the nerdy dentist is sucked into a world of decadent and kinky sex, drugs and homicide when his seductive patient changes her prescription from five Demerols to 50, then steals the rest of the painkillers from his clinic.
Now the Drug Enforcement Administration suspects him of selling narcotics, he’s in danger of losing his license, and he’s being stalked by the crazy girl’s psychotic brother. A wanted criminal, Mr. Martin sinks deeper into an absurd hole because of his sexual obsession with one flaky patient that can’t be cured. The character is so stupid that I ran out of patience fast. Then the wacko brother turns up dead on the floor of his condo, an ambitious actor (played by an unbilled Kevin Bacon) starts following him around doing research for a movie role and the cops mistake him for a psycho killer. Huh? This all happens at about the same time that the dentist discovers he’s the victim of an elaborate con scheme masterminded by the soft, pink, all-American Ms. Dern, who is having it off with the dentist’s own demented, unwashed sicko brother (Elias Koteas). None of this makes any sense, and since you really don’t know if it’s supposed to be a macabre comedy or a surreal drama, you may find yourself looking at the movie listings to see what else is playing.
With Steve Martin, it’s hard to take the creepy side of this grisly, manic, overplotted tale seriously. He’s too shrewd to be idiotic, even when he plays dopes. But when he covers his tracks and erases his dental records by yanking out his own teeth with a pair of pliers, Novocaine finally self-destructs at the same time Mr. Martin self-mutilates. Some people laugh; others scream and cover their eyes with horror. The lady next to me rushed to the ladies’ room and threw up. O.K., so it’s different and peculiar. It’s also confused, repulsive and unconvincing. I’ve had more fun at root canals.
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