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Commentary

Naysayers Are Under a Bad Spell

November 21, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reading the reviews of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" made me think of a scene in "Toy Story" in which the two main characters give voice to the conflict at the heart of the story. Stranded in the great wide world, Sheriff Woody is panicking over the fate of a lost toy, while Buzz Lightyear insists on reacting to the situation as if he were a real live space ranger--and that pushes Woody right over the edge.

"You. Are. A. Toy!" he screams at the deluded Buzz. "You are not a space ranger, you aren't the real Buzz Lightyear, you're an action figure. You are a child's plaything." A little later, Buzz realizes this is true and eventually comes to understand that being a toy is actually more important than being a space ranger because there is no greater calling than to love and please a child.

The critics lauded "Toy Story," which is perfectly understandable, since it is a very fine movie on all sorts of levels. Yet while celebrating the medium, they seemed to have missed the message. Or at least those who went on to review "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" seem to have missed the message. They have forgotten that Harry Potter is a child's plaything.

With a few exceptions, the reviews of "Harry Potter" followed a remarkably similar script. First the success of the books was remarked upon with varying degrees of hostility, as well as the cost of the film and the wild expectations of the audience. This served as a springboard for the main theme of the pieces--that director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves remained faithful to the text, and this is A Very Bad Thing.

In fact, the film did exactly what it was supposed to do; it brought to life a singular and lovely tale. In their "dreary literal-mindedness," the filmmakers managed to make a very significant cinematic point--that magic doesn't have to be campy or self-referential or full of wisecracks. Magic, even the broomstick-riding, invisible-cloak variety, is sometimes not only real, it should be sincere.

It is always interesting when critics speak in one voice, especially when that voice is as querulous as this one. Using terms such as "literal-minded" with the same snotty implications of an English grad student muttering "derivative," they seemed shocked that Columbus chose to portray the book--oh, the shame of it--accurately. One critic actually used the word "dreary," sounding for all the world like the sort of fellow who is still searching for a dry enough martini and who hasn't seen a mainstream movie he liked since "Godfather II."

For paragraphs, the reviews explicated pop culture and archetypes and went over in great detail the past sins and successes of the filmmakers. When they occasionally returned to the film (oh, that) they mostly agreed that the cast did an excellent job and that the film was very entertaining. But the takeaway was that they were not just disappointed, but personally offended that the filmmakers had not allowed their own whimsy to take flight.

As if there weren't whimsy flying around as it is. And as if any major tinkering with the book--Kloves actually did quite a bit of mostly graceful pruning--would not have been met with even louder cries of derision.

One has to wonder if this unified front is not more revelatory of the monolithic nature of movie criticism than of the merits of the movie. Clearly, none of the critics was sitting next to a child, inner or outer, while watching it. Riveted does not even begin to describe the mien and manner of my 7-year-old seatmate. I have seen people in a wide variety of altered states, but never have I seen a person so joyfully transcendent, so vividly focused. At several points during the film, I was afraid his electrons were going to accidentally rearrange themselves.

And I was right there with him, cheering during the Quidditch match, hissing every time Draco Malfoy appeared, breathing in admiration over the Invisibility Cloak. The only difference in our reactions was that I had to laugh in sheer delight every time Alan Rickman appeared--all eyes and hair and deliciously malignant annunciations--while my young friend found him genuinely menacing. Another boy, in an attempt to give his after-theater impressions, was literally bouncing with enthusiasm. Other parents and friends of children and teens reported very similar reactions, even on repeat performances.

I'm not suggesting that audience reaction should dictate criticism. But "Harry Potter" is not "The Seven Samurai" or "A Touch of Evil" or even "Casablanca." It is, to paraphrase Sheriff Woody, a child's movie. Perhaps the problem was that there were not enough ironic asides, or insider references a la "Shrek." Adults have grown accustomed to finding a few little dainties wrapped up just for them in children's movies. But "Harry Potter" functions as a pure fantasy; it believes in itself so strongly that its main audience--and that would be children--cannot help but believe in it as well.

There have been complaints, about the book as well as the movie, that the characters and plots are not "sophisticated" enough, that they lack, say, the Christian symbolism of C.S. Lewis' Narnia tales or the Old English resonance of the Philip Pullman series.

But even taking into consideration the differently aged audience those works represent, that is a bit like comparing Shakespeare's comedies with his tragedies. Different stories employ different means and serve different masters.

Which may explain why, while watching it, a 38-year-old woman with bad memories of adolescence suddenly wanted to be a kid again just so maybe she could go to Hogwarts too. I don't know how much more the critics expect from a movie, but to borrow from another icon of the genre: That'll do, Harry. That'll do.

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