Slack Magic

 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is less a $120 million movie than an expensive, elaborately planned military operation. Caution is the watchword, and securing territory the imperative—victory achieved by simply eliminating defeat. There's a palpable avoidance of risk as this new mythology is wheeled gingerly into the marketplace and carefully positioned to zap your pre-sold brain.

Anticipating many returns on their investment—sorcerer's stone, indeed!—Harry Potter's corporate producers have obviously decided to let J.K. Rowling's kid-lit phenomenon be itself or rather, the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation. Eccentric visionary Tim Burton is not the man AOL Time Warner wanted for this job; the Home Alone king Chris Columbus will do just fine, especially since his early credits include the screenplay for the Spielberg-produced pre-teen adventure The Goonies.

The script, by Steve Kloves, treads lightly over Harry's unhappy childhood in a little room under the stairs, an orphan persecuted by his horrid uncle and aunt and their fat son. At age 11, Harry is rescued from these odious muggles (non-magical humans) by a garrulous ogre, Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). Attaching a curly tail to Harry's cousin, Rubeus whisks the boy to an enchanted shopping mall in a medieval theme park behind the facade of contemporary London—the first of several kid crowd pleasers predicated on the consumption of magic toys and candy.

Paper chase: Radcliffe in Harry Potter
photo: Peter Mountain
Paper chase: Radcliffe in Harry Potter


Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone
Directed by Chris Columbus
Written by Steve Kloves, from the novel by J.K. Rowling
Warner Bros.
Opens November 16

Shallow Hal
Directed by Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly
Written by the Farrellys and Sean Moynihan
20th Century Fox

Written and directed by Jacques Demy
Film Forum November 16 through 29

Then it's off to be the wizard, studying magic at the world's grooviest educational institution, albeit one that has impressed some members of the Christian right as satanic—the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Exotic? Perhaps. An alien, vaguely Victorian class structure seems to be in effect at Hogwarts, although to judge from the heaping bowls of french fries, greasy chicken wings, and corn on the cob available for dinner, the place must be catered by KFC. In addition to the students—Brit tykes with a background smatter of ethnic diversity—the school is populated by a raft of entertaining spirits and replete with all manner of secret passages and forbidden zones.

Marked since infancy with a scar inflicted by the evil wizard Voldemort, who murdered his parents, Harry (self-contained Daniel Radcliffe) thrives at Hogwarts—despite the resentment of snobby upperclassmen with French-sounding surnames. Harry's associates might have been plucked from the peanut gallery—the wide-eyed, red-haired Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and bossy know-it-all Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), whom Harry saves from a troll bearing a family resemblance to DreamWorks' Shrek. In keeping with the genteel aura, the adult cast suggests a West End dragnet. Fiona Shaw, John Cleese, and John Hurt have their cameos early; Hogwarts is staffed by the likes of Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Ian Hart, Zoë Wanamaker, and Alan Rickman. (Harris is an intolerable old hairball, but Rickman, as always, brings a welcome sneer to the proceedings; the others are distinguished mainly by their coiffures.)

A sepia overlay aside, Harry Potter has no particular look, but Columbus does manage to integrate the vast variety of child-friendly visual effects: magic mirrors, dragon eggs, cloaks of invisibility, and broomsticks that not only fly but buck and snort like rodeo broncos. The countless birds, cats, and toads that inhabit Hogwarts are amply naturalistic. The least convincing member of the menagerie is the dour digital centaur who materializes in the Dark Forest to lend Harry a helping hoof.

Is the movie true to the spirit of the book? Having never cracked a Harry Potter tome, and thus being a hopeless muggle, I can't say. (Ask me next month about The Lord of the Rings.) It does seem as though the Harry Potter mythos has skillfully drawn on the extensive corpus of British children's books, borrowing elements from Through the Looking Glass, The Sword in the Stone, Mary Poppins, and The Chronicles of Narnia, to name a few. Enlivened by the occasional snot- or drool-based gag, the narrative line is largely predictable and comfortingly easy to follow—although John Williams's emphatic score clashes with the tone of British understatement.

Solid but uninspired, Harry lacks brio. It's respectable and a bit dull. I can't say it made me yearn for my own sense of childhood wonder, but speaking as an adult, it did stir up some suppressed memories. I never thought I'd feel nostalgic for the coercive go-go vulgarity of Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Empire Strikes Back.

The four comedies written and directed by brothers Bobby and Peter Farrelly have staked out a particular territory somewhere between yuks and yucks. Shallow Hal, their latest, is not only light on laughs but discomfitingly didactic in its disgust. A reverse ugly-duckling fable, this sweetly grotesque comedy is relentlessly devoted to the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Told by his dying father (a minister no less) to find himself "a classic beauty with a perfect ass . . . hot young tail is what it's about," young Hal grows up into an avid would-be modelizer (Jack Black), introduced dancing frantically around a club, doggedly trying to get next to the most gorgeous women in the place. Hal's obsession with physical appearance is echoed by his even creepier buddy (Jason Alexander, under a toupee that seems to have been cultivated in a petri dish) and, in keeping with the movie's inspirational tone, reproached by the cheerful extroversion of another pal who, because of a neurological disorder, perambulates through life on all fours (Rene Kirby, born with spina bifida).

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