Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

The publication of J. K. Rowling's “Harry Potter” books has become such a global literary and cultural phenomena (over 100 million copies old in more than 46 languages), that it's almost impossible to treat the franchise's first film, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone,” factually, while disregarding the juggernaut hype that has touted it as the biggest film event in UK's history.

Chris Columbus's rendition of the adventures of the world's most beloved wizard is a decently made, likable picture that will please its primary target audience: the books' fans. However, from a strictly artistic viewpoint, “Harry Potter” is not a particularly exciting movie. It strenuously tries but only intermittently succeeds in being magical in the vein of such seminal children fantasies as “E.T.” or “The Wizard of Oz.”

Excessive running time (152 minutes) will limit the number of showings per day and may also prove trying for the more mature viewers. On the other hand, the heavy reliance on special effects, which dominate at least half of the yarn, should encourage repeat viewing by teenagers, a crucial factor for making “Titanic” and now “Harry Potter” a hugely successful movie domestically and internationally. Savvy saturation campaign and a yearlong media blitz should help this truly critics-proof film (even more so than “Planet of the Apes”) become the most popular picture ever released in the U.K., with total grosses in the neighborhood of the “Star Wars” pictures.

Celeb author Rowling must have learned some useful lessons from the experience of her colleague-writer Anne Rice, who first condemned the casting of Interview With the Vampire, but then, upon seeing the final version, totally reversed her opinion and embraced the picture in a series of paid editorials in the trades. Though Rowling had a say over the casting and worked closely with Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves, she didn't interfere with their work and presumably saw the picture only a week before its world premiere. Author's seal of approval is crucial in satisfying the worldwide fans of her four published books (three more are in the works), all of which will be made into movies in the next decade.

One can only speculate what a visionary director like Spielberg, who at one point considered making the movie, could have accomplished with similar text. As he's shown in his entire career, the highlights of which are the “Home Alone” pictures and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” Columbus is a craftsman whose proficiency seldom rises above the material. Fortunately, he was given a sharper narrative to work with than that of his former efforts, which include the sappy “Step Mom” and broad comedies like “Nine Months.”

In adapting the novel to the big screen, obviously constrained by readers' expectations, Columbus has made a functional film that feels like a visual illustration of the thick text. At the same time, more astute viewers may quibble with the inherent clash and resulting compromise between the helmer's uniquely American cinematic sensibility, which is rather bland and middlebrow, and the specifically British roots of his literary source.

This “Harry Potter” registers as an attempt by a commercial American director to make a uniquely looking British movie. For better or for worse, despite sophisticated digital technology, end result is an extremely old-fashioned movie whose look can't be specifically grounded in any particular era (this may help the picture's commercial prospects in the long run).

The story begins with a wonderfully executed scene, in which an eccentric biker drops from the sky and leaves a baby with his surrogate family. Cut to a decade later, when the 11-year-old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has learned to live with his bullying Uncle Vernon Dursley (Richard Griffiths), his callous Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw), and the constant whining of his spoiled cousin, a bumbling fool named Dudley (Harry Melling). For their part, Harry's relatives have just as reluctantly learned to tolerate the unwelcome presence of their orphaned nephew, whose residence is confined to the cupboard under the stairs.

Unfortunately, the sensitive, precocious boy serves as a constant reminder of Petunia's “wayward” sister and her brother-in-law, whose untimely demise has been veiled in mysterious secrecy. Over the years, they have fed Harry with various versions about his parents' death. It's one of the strengths of Kloves' well-constructed script that each progressive episode discloses another layer of the parents' disappearance. Like the Grim brothers' and most fairy tales, Harry Potter draws on the universal need of children, particularly orphaned and abused ones, to retrieve their parents' true identity and unravel the circumstances of their expiration.

Harry dreads the impending arrival of his eleventh birthday, which, based on the past, should offer no excitement, no presents, and no special treats. In one of the film's nicest moments, a mysterious green-ink letter addressed to Harry arrives at the door, accompanied by a curious dispatch, an owl. Uncle Vernon destroys the letter before Harry has a chance to read it, but the next day, another owl descends on the house with another letter. In the next week, numerous letters and owls (in a sequence that feels like a parodic tribute to Hitchcock's “The Birds”) continue to turn up on Harry's doorsteps. Fearing they can no longer suppress the peculiar correspondence, the Dursleys flee to a remote hut, but suddenly a loud crash breaks the door, and the awesome bulk of an enormous giant named Hagrid walks in.

Furious with the Dursleys for destroying the letters and trying to conceal their nephew's identity, Hagrid reveals a secret that changes Harry's life: His parents didn't die in a car crash (as his relatives had told him), but were in fact murdered by an evil wizard, who etched the distinctive lightning scar on Harry's forehead. From that point on, Hagrid becomes sort of a guardian angel, appearing unexpectedly out of nowhere. The presence of Hagrid, splendidly played by Scottish actor Bobby Coltrane, is integral to the yarn's overall emotional impact.

Soon, Harry's pleasantly surprised to find out that he's actually the son of two powerful wizards and that he himself possesses unique magical powers, revealed when he inadvertently orchestrates the release of a talking snake from a zoo. Story proper begins when Harry is invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, embarking on the adventure of a lifetime, beginning with the discovery of a secret 9 3/4 Platform at London's Kings Cross Station. In the film, as in the book, the school's segments are influenced by Charles Dickens, and movies based on his work, such as “David Copperfield,” “Great Expectations,” “Oliver Twist,” and the movie musical, “Oliver!”

It's at Hogwarts that a lonely Harry finds the home and family he has never had. Though Harry is the dramatic center, as soon as he lands at school, he befriends two wizards-in-training mates, Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). Through their various adventures, which get progressively more somber and scarier, the trio forms an intimate bond based on trust, friendship and loyalty, which are the tale's moral values.

Radcliffe, who had won the lead part over thousands of kids in open casting calls, is well cast as an intelligent, glasses-wearing boy, effortlessly showing a sense of perpetual wonder and curiosity. Radcliffe doesn't play a perfect hero, he has flaws as an academic, but this endows his portraiture with an everyman quality, an “ordinary” boy capable of extraordinary things. (Upon seeing his audition, Rowling is reported to have said: “I feel as if I've been reunited with my long lost son.”)

Though all three children acquit themselves marvelously, it's the secondary cast that adds eccentric whimsical color, peppering the yarn with wonderful cameo performances. The stellar, all-British cast includes: Maggie Smith as the severe Professor McGonagall, Richard Harris as the all-knowing Professor Dumbledore, Alan Rickman as the eccentric Potions Professor Snape; Ian Hart, as Snape's foil, the school's Professor of the Defense Against Dark Art; Fiona Shaw as the wicked stepmother (a role that echoes Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch), Richard Griffiths as the anxious uncle eternally concerned about Harry's next strange move, and Harry Melling as Dudley, Harry's fat and clumsy cousin.

Columbus, who had actually auditioned to get the assignment and is committed to do the next two installments, shows passion for the book and knowledge of its details–perhaps too much so: Rowling was promised that the film would be faithful to her vision. Known for his simple, wholesome fare, which is usually seasoned with juvenile and satirical elements, Columbus seems unable to lift the narrative to a magical-mythical level. That said, compared with his previous helming, which was often sloppy, broad, and opportunistic, drawing on the viewers' common expectations, Harry Potter is a shrewder, more carefully-made picture.

However, the main problem of the production, which is well-mounted, is that it falls victim to a repetitive structure: Every dialogue scene leads to a special effects sequence. Lacking a consistently dynamic tempo and unified vision, the film, particularly its second half, feels like a string of disparate set pieces (the equivalent of production numbers in musical pictures), though some of which are quite inventive and dazzling.

Rowling's books have become a worldwide phenomenon, touching and capturing the imagination of readers of all ages. However, unlike great fable-fantasies, such as “Wizard of Oz” or “E.T.,” which were movies about children that also appealed to adults, the first “Harry Potter” is largely a movie about and for children.