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'Potter' magic proves enchanting - but only for a short spell

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Even a brief outline like this reveals Rowling's inspiration by a long line of literature going back to fairy tales and folk legends of old. Charles Dickens's influence is also everywhere. The trail gets hotter when you remember C.S. Lewis's great books recounting "The Chronicles of Narnia" and his less-known "space trilogy" of science-fiction novels, which touch on similar ideas about the battle between darkness and enlightenment. J.R.R. Tolkein comes into the picture with "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," which were clearly among Rowling's major models.

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Moving to more contemporary fare, there's more than a hint of "Star Wars" in the character of Voldemort, a brilliant wizard who turned to the dark side of his art. Will he turn out to be Harry's real daddy when the last installment comes out?

The big difference between "Harry Potter" and the Lewis and Tolkein trilogies is that the latter are fantasies for adults - books full of phantasms and wonderment, but also anchored in social complexities and psychological perplexities that mirror the world we actually live in.

Rowling's book and Columbus's movie fall back on storytelling gimmicks - coincidence, happenstance, stereotyping, caricature - knowing young readers don't yet realize what shortcuts they are.

This is a time-honored approach to children's literature, and it's helped countless authors produce books that nourished all of us as we grew up. Great children's tales portray reality in direct, uncomplicated ways that help youngsters understand life in manageable stages. Rowling is a master of this fine

art. But that shouldn't cloud the distinction between well-told tales for kids and fiction that addresses mature minds on terms of equality and respect.

The same goes for movies. Everyone loves "Lady and the Tramp," but we grown-ups know that the views of life and love in pictures like this (including "Titanic," its cleverly disguised remake) are a tad less sophisticated than those the genuine classics hold out to us.

That said, Columbus has done a rousing job of bringing Rowling's rambunctious story to the screen. The eerie corridors and ever-shifting stairways of Hogwarts are as daunting, haunting, initially bewildering, and ultimately comforting as when Rowling painted them in prose. Visions of menacing evil, including the revelation of Voldemort's sinister hiding place, are as harmlessly scary as they are tactfully unsensationalized.

Just as important, Columbus has orchestrated a symphony of first-rate performances. Daniel Radcliffe looks and acts just right as Harry, not the most popular kid in school but not the nerdiest, either. Emma Watson is just as good as Hermione, the bookish girl who has the right answer to (almost) everything. Rupert Grint outdoes them both as well-meaning Ron Weasley, combining the expressive face of a 12-year-old Tom Courtenay with the comic skills of a Monty Python member in the making.

On the adult side, Robbie Coltrane steals much of the story as Hagrid, the amiable giant who can't quite control his obstreperous pet dragon or his own unstoppable mouth. Richard Harris is an imposing Dumbledore, gentle John Hurt is a memorable magic-wand salesman, and Alan Rickman tames most of his hammier impulses as Professor Snape, a key figure in the mystery Harry must solve to stay alive.

If you're disappointed that Peeves the poltergeist didn't appear in this installment, he'll surely show up in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," due at this time next year.

Perhaps the hype will have settled a bit by then, allowing the achievements of Rowling and Columbus to be judged for what they are - not instant artistic classics or incisive explorations of the cosmic unconscious, but shining examples of clean-cut entertainment for the PG set. This is more than enough to assure "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" a box-office take that any alchemist would envy, a front-running position in the coming Oscar race, and a fair measure of lasting fame into the bargain.

Rated PG; contains mild vulgarity and scenes too scary for the youngest viewers.

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