Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

There is a division apparent between the dramatic side of the film and the special effects. Reportedly, J.K. Rowling wished to have an English cast directed by Terry Gilliam. The film was thus rescued from oblivion in those parts which involve the actors, even though on the whole and ultimately it is oblivious, except that there is an argument to be made that a satirical impulse leavens the lump, if only as a consequence of the division.

Harry Potter, in this view, resembles Bill Gates. Whether that is so or not, the actor in this role has the sagacity to recognize at nearly every juncture that however pound foolish the film may be, his agent is penny wise by comparison, and he need not henceforth break his back cramming for A levels. Whether or not he was supposed to have the “thoroughly deceived” quality of Nabokov’s elephant, which was the idea in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street (where the motto was “capture the magic”), he doesn’t.

With this central performance, the numerous sthetic promulgations on the order of shopping malls as enchanted lanes and web pages as magic books, come into their own as a rather grotty commercial. Add to this the low comedy of a villain who cannot live on unicorns’ blood but must have what is in Harry Potter’s pocket (the philosopher’s stone, except in America), and the high dramatics of a mother who is said to have sacrificed herself for her child, thereby endowing Harry with virtue against the foe, and you can see the gnashing bitter laughter this reading would entail.

John Cleese, God bless him, has a lame joke given him to execute, and does so with no relish but with gentlemanly dispatch. Without benefit of theory, but taking the thing at its surface or presentational value, lameness is the film’s sine qua non, and the director’s imbecility a constant irritant.

His special effects are meant, dare one say it, to take up the torch from Ray Harryhausen, and one can only repeat the injunction from Godard, “light it!” Fifty years ago it was supposed that computers might have all the answers at the flick of a switch, and superstitions are notoriously hard to beat.

Critics who resisted this film nevertheless fell down before The Fellowship of the Ring, which after all is pretty similar (an obscure hero, a dark quest for a powerful object to be destroyed). The lines were indicated by E.T.: The Extraterrestrial and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The search for a Spielberg heir goes on. Ebert fell for it hook, line and sinker, but didn’t care as much for Peter Jackson’s film, go figure.

Other material is extracted from Bell, Book and Candle, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Jungle Book and The Birds, perhaps even Great Expectations. Haley Joel Osment does not play Harry Potter, as Spielberg wished him to do, again according to report, but the actor does wear an open plaid shirt over a T-shirt. The goblins, especially the head bank teller, seem to be modeled on Hume Cronyn, and the evil Voldemort on Peter Cushing.

There is, in all this desperately dry dullness, something of a summer camp entertainment, if you like. The clumsiness of the direction puts the Sorting Hat on the children’s heads in such a way as to visibly promote not only the idea of talking through your hat, but having an innocent child up your rear end while doing so.

The owls and the stripedy cat are the most marvelous things in it, except for Maggie Smith, but also Richard Harris, John Hurt and Alan Rickman, and the children as well (Ebert acknowledged Miss Jean Brodie, but there were other critical views hard to account for. “It may be long,” says Maitland McDonagh in TV Guide, “but it’s not boring—how could it be... when the venerable Maggie Smith turns into a cat?”). It may be only a case of bringing home the fatback, but they give value for money, and Harris’s little finger moves mountains.

Fellini, nevertheless, it ain’t. If.... spelled backward is... Fie.


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The success of the franchise has emboldened the director into countermoves against the authoress, such as putting Vladek Sheybal’s face on Yoda, the snot-green imp of fairy fame. You pays your money... and you picks your nose.

Still, there is a tradition of cordiality among Britons towards even the feeblest and most genuinely awful twitch or nod in the remotest vicinity of wit, however misplaced, and one should like to see more exceptions made to it after the example of Dr. Johnson, who proudly confessed, “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.”