Monday, March 31, 2014

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone


I'm absolutely exhausted this evening. It has been quite a day. We filmed the grand Chicago tap number on Michigan Avenue which will be featured in the What A Friend We Have In Cheeses campaign for the American Dairy Council. I was in my Velveeta Chiffon, tapping away on the top of a large Kraft Macaroni and Cheese box while a thousand cheerful tap dancing children swarmed up and down the street in front the Chicago Art Institute. The whole process took about eight hours and was tiring, but uneventful. Only two of the kiddies fell in the river by accident and the museum was very understanding about the one bored little tapper who snuck in and added purple crayon to Van Gogh's Sunflowers.

Even those little pyromaniacs, Mrs. Tuttle's Tapping Tots were reasonably well behaved. The Macaroni and Cheese Box had been made out of sturdy fiberglass rather than cardboard so it didn't ignite when they went into their famous sparkler routine. I am glad to have the whole thing over and done with. There's only one more stop this trip, somewhere in Kansas for us to film me standing on an Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe locomotive racing through amber waves of grain, and I'll be able to return home to Chateau Maine and get back to work on my new kabuki stage musical spectacular.

As a special treat after the shooting, the production company arranged for us all to attend a private screening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone at Watertower Place. I, a thousand children, and their stage mothers, all squeezed into one of their cinemas to see the most eagerly awaited film since Slaughterhouse Live!, my musical version of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The film, based on J.K. Rowling's popular novel, was produced by Warner Brothers, written by Steve Kloves and directed by Chris Columbus, but was filmed in England with a British cast to keep it true to its origins - a book which sort of combines The Narnia Chronicles, Tom Brown's Schooldays, and Classics Comics Dickens.

Young Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is orphaned at an early age and brought up by his nasty aunt and uncle (Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw) who keep him under the stairs and generally mistreat him. They do not want him to know that he is actually the son of modern day wizards who were killed by the evil Lord Voldemort. When he turns eleven, he is invited to attend Hogwarts, the best school of witchcraft and wizardry in the British Isles, a sort of Eton with magic wands and the odd dragon or two. Soon, Harry is discovering his true identity in the parallel world of magic that exists in modern England, escorted by the amiable giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), who comes to rescue him from his unpleasant relatives. Armed with his parents wizard gold, a snowy owl named Hedwig, and his own wand, Harry journeys to Hogwarts for his first year.

At Hogwarts, he meets other first year students including Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) who become his companions in adventure. The headmaster, Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris), and other faculty (including Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Zoe Wanamaker and Ian Hart) are protecting the fabled Sorcerer's Stone from evil. Harry and his friends stumble across plots, intrigue, mountain trolls, three headed dogs, cloaks of invisibility and deadly chess sets as they unravel the mystery.

This film, already zooming up the box office charts, will make a small fortune for Warner Brothers and doubtless spawn many sequels due to the huge presold audience of children who have met the literary Harry. Will they enjoy the cinematic Harry as much as his literary counterpart? I think so. The film makers have been remarkably faithful to the book and have transferred the novel to screen nearly scene for scene. This is the ultimate weakness of the film. They have been so reverential that the work is a filmed novel, rather than a movie. While viewing it, I could not help but be reminded of The Wizard of Oz. The novel was a children's classic and the film, made nearly forty years later, is one of the most beloved films for children ever to come out of Hollywood. What people tend to forget, however, is that the film works because it took liberties with the novel in order to translate it into more cinematic terms. The film makers at MGM in the late thirties rethought the material in a fresh way. A literal translation would not be nearly as compelling.

The film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is so faithful that, at times, it feels very stilted and flat. The storytelling feels forced and unnatural, as if it had been dipped in formaldehyde and paraffin and then frozen. Individual sequences are wondrous. The quidditch match (quidditch being a popular wizard sport sort of like rugby on flying broomsticks) is beautifully filmed and put together. The banquet scenes in Hogwarts great hall are properly magical. There are frightening moments when Harry and his friends are in danger and the film doesn't soft pedal the dark side of his world. The film is long, at over two and a quarter hours, but doesn't drag. In fact, it might have benefitted from a few more minutes of exposition at the beginning. The first twenty minutes is very choppy and likely to be quite confusing to anyone who has not read the book.

The three young performers who play the leads are well cast. The makers were smart enough to cast British children and to cast relative unknowns who haven't yet developed annoying child performer mannerisms. Rupert Grint is Ron Weasley, physically and characterologically - he's the perfect best friend / comic relief. Emma Watson tends to overdo Hermione's 'know it all' attitude but reaches a better balance in the second half of the film and should do well in the sequels as her character matures. Daniel Radcliffe catches Harry's introspection and sense of otherness quite well. He's a bit better in the quiet scenes than the action ones as he seems a bit nervous at the off camera nonsense necessary for modern special effects.

The adults in the cast are all obviously pleased as punch to be part of the 'Harry Potter' phenomenon and have a good time with their stock roles. Alan Rickman does his sneering villain shtick, Maggie Smith gives us Miss Jean Brodie in a witches hat and Robbie Coltrane steals all of his scenes as the gentle giant, Hagrid. The weak link is Richard Harris as Dumbledore. He doesn't give the impression of great character and wisdom, rather of self-amusement at the thought of his residuals check.

The production design is gorgeous with eye-popping visual details, especially the interiors of Hogwarts with its gothic arches and spaces, interspersed with living paintings and a few fantastic beasts. Chris Columbus, whom I initially thought was a dreadful choice as director due to his insistence on cloying sentiment (I would have gone with Terry Gilliam), returns to his Gremlins roots and doesn't get too saccharine. I wish I could say the same for John Williams' somewhat overbearing score.

The film is fun. The youngsters in your family who have read the books will love it. The adults won't be bored. It is not, however, an instant classic and full of squandered opportunities in an overly reverential attempt not to screw it up.

Owl post. Burmese snake. Instant pig tail. Weasley siblings. Delicious looking quidditch team captain. Baby Norwegian Ridgeback. Chocolate Frog. Nasty caretaker. Painted fat lady. Over large sweater. Flying keys. Two faced villain.

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