Russell Baillie

Russell Baillie is the Herald’s entertainment editor

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

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(Herald rating: * * * * )

It's hiding to nothing time. The film we might as well call Harry Potter I is as much fun as it could be. But let's not confuse a movie that is more faithful to the book than The Ten Commandments was to Exodus with being a great film.

Because it's not - it's too long, too lightweight, too tied to the page to be anything but an extension of the publishing phenomenon. Which is probably all that was required. And hurrah for that, go the Potter fans who have been stage-managed as the media reaction to its arrival.

But while the book flies along like a Nimbus 2000, propelled by its jolly-hockey-sticks humour and sense of menace and magic, the film too often merely bunnyhops like a sorcerer's apprentice with a broom stuck in an unfortunate place.

Still, that makes for an entertaining two hours out of its 153-minute duration. The initial fun comes with the recognition factor on our arrival into Potterworld, whether it's seeing Hagrid (Coltrane, the funniest thing on offer) arrive on his motorbike, our first glimpse of Harry (Radcliffe) himself in his spectacles, hand-me-down clothes and tiny room under the stairs, or the ta-da unveiling of the Hogwarts Express.

And as young Potter's true calling is revealed, the film soon becomes rich in incidental pleasures. Like his and Hagrid's foray into the otherworldly shopping mall of Diagon Alley - which looks like a long-lost set from Oliver! - and comes with a quite lovely, funny scene between Radcliffe and John Hurt as wand-merchant Mr Ollivander.

Hurt is but one of many veteran Brit-thesps giving it their all in a determined effort to show that given the Hollywood pay cheque, they can put on a better class of pantomime.

But while it's probably not nice to pick on someone so young with so much pressure on him, young master Radcliffe is certainly lacking in screen charisma.

It doesn't help that American director Columbus often constructs scenes around his young actors with all the energy of a sitcom, complete with repetitive shots that probably say in the script: "Harry reacts with a knowing smile."

Yes, the quidditch match is exciting enough that Rupert Murdoch is probably signing up the global broadcast rights as we speak, and Hogwarts itself is impressive in its rich, effects-laden detail.

But the storytelling is lumpy and dense, perhaps because the screenplay has had to pick the eyes out of Rowling's self-contained, episodic chapters.

It builds to a tense finale - the chess game is particularly gripping - but it lacks much sense of menace throughout. There is a flashback to how Harry got his famous scar, but it's hardly the stuff of nightmares when, if you think about it, it should be.

Still, if this feels clumsy and a little lacking in true movie magic, it's hard not to be entertained and engaged by Harry and friends and the Tom Brown's Schooldays-gone-Twilight Zone movie they're in.

And any kid who has read the book deserves to see it, even if just for the ensuing dinner table discussion about why books and the films that are made from them feel different.

But it's just the admittedly entertaining film of the book. And the book remains the better movie.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris Director: Chris Columbus

Rating: PG (supernatural themes)

Running time: 152 mins

Screening: Village, Hoyts, Berkeley cinemas

- NZ Herald

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