Back when “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” came out, it was hard to focus on anything but the film’s shortcomings. Director Chris Columbus, as he has proven in films before and since, has little sense of urgency — no gift for pacing.
Look at the full list of his credits and marvel that the “Home Alone” director was handed the most wildly popular youth novel series in history, heavy-handed comedies that aren’t that funny, clunky attempts at action, and a sentimental streak that probably was the trait that most qualified him to handle what could have been the first and only two films — had they failed.
But a dozen years later, here’s what stands out about “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” — all the things he got right. No expense was spared making this world, from the British suburbia of the early scenes, through the train ride and into Hogwarts itself. The detail is theme-park gorgeous, which is why it made for such a successful theme park here in Orlando.
John Williams’ music-box score is simply magical, catchy and enduring enough to make fans tear up at those first few notes. The effects, straight away, give us the idea that Warner Brothers was doing to do what was required to make the magic feel real. That’s evident from the blizzard of admission letters Harry’s Muggle family — which has been destroying them — gets from Hogwarts.
And the casting? Spot on, from the easy choice of the great Alan Rickman as Severus Snape to Maggie Smith and others down the line. Richard Harris was an iffy selection as Dumbledore, but after his passing, Michael Gambon upgraded that role just in time for the character’s important films.
The kids — so fresh-faced and impish in this, their debut, give every sign of the actors they will become. Daniel Radcliffe has a nice overwhelmed air about him, totally right for the wizard boy who is just learning that he’s a wizard. Emma Watson, in particular, shows the spark that will carry her to a long career, post-Potter. Check out “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” if you doubt it. Tom Felton would grow from a sneering little mean boy into a first rate villain as Draco Malfoy.
Establishing the mythology is always the burden of any introductory films to a series, and “Sorcerer’s Stone” struggles with it. Columbus, lacking the guts to trim the script from its near page-by-page adaptation of the book, never pushes the pace or lifts the action to where it might have been. Check out Dumbledore’s tedious way of turning out the lights on Harry’s street to see this inaction in action.
But a fan would say “It’s all here,” and that fan would be right — Quidditch, Hagrid, Maggie Smith and John “Ollivander” Hurt, Diagon Alley, Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw as those mean Muggle parents, and that Great Hall at Hogwarts.
It’s glorious to behold. And even though Columbus would not pick up the pace or improve as a filmmaker for the second film, “Chamber of Secrets,” he set a production values bar, and a casting one, that the series would uphold to its very end.
Success breeding success, Hurt and Smith and Robbie Coltrane et. al would be joined by Emma Thompson, Imelda Stanton, Miranda Richardson, Kenneth Branagh, Ciaran Hinds, Brendan Gleeson and pretty much Every British Isles actor worth his or her salt.
Someday, midnight audiences might be howling over “I Love You, Beth Cooper,” one of the worst films ever made and one of the few films Columbus has directed post-Potter (He botched “Rent,” and didn’t do “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” many favors). But he did all right by Harry Potter, he did. Time only makes this first film (watched at home, with interruptions) stand up in ways it never really did in the theater.
And only time will tell if these books, this film series and the theme park that spun from it will endure. But as new kids discover the books and the films through “Sorcerer’s Stone,” you don’t have to be a wizard to predict them sticking around a long, long time.
MPAA Rating:PG for some scary moments and mild language
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Rupert Grint, Maggie Smith, Ian Hart, Richard Harris.
Credits: Directed by Chris Columbus, scripted by Steve Kloves, based on the J.K. Rowling novel. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time 2:32