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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

(2001) *** 1/2 Pg
152 min. Warner Brothers. Directors: Chris Columbus, Robert Legato (II), David Richard Ellis. Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, John Cleese, Richard Griffiths.

To movie lovers everywhere, "Mr. Potter" always meant the crotchety villain of It's a Wonderful Life. But now, Dame Maggie's stern intonations of "Mr. Potter" herald the arrival of the hottest literary adaptation since MGM's Gone With the Wind: Warner Brothers' Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Okay, this monstrously hyped event film inspires hyperbole, but the film begs two questions. Will the legions of Harry Potter fans of all ages be satisfied by the concretization of their fantasies? And is this film, judged on its own merits, a good one?

The answer to both questions is a somewhat reserved "yes." While comparisons to The Wizard of Oz are questionable, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone will undoubtedly stand the test of time as a great family film. Despite its unusually epic length for a film ostensibly designed for children, director Chris Columbus maintains a brisk pace, and Wonder Boys screenwriter Steve Kloves cleverly conflates the story while eliminating no major, unique episode from the book. While some changes may initially seem odd or arbitrary, deviations are necessary and kept to a minimum. As it is, the filmmaker's faithfulness to J.K. Rowling's book resulted in a two-and-a-half-hour film. Some adults and younger kiddies will find the length trying, but the thrills follow one another at a good clip.

Harry Potter, of course, is the blissfully unaware, mystically powerful child who learns, on his eleventh birthday, that he is destined for wizardry. Whisked from his grotesquely abusive family to the wonder-full world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry discovers a whole world he never new existed, in which he is the hero and hope for the future. Along the way, he makes several fast friends, and a few enemies.

Potter is played by twelve-year-old Daniel Radcliffe, and his engaging, gee-whiz aura conveys the character's everyday appeal. Radcliffe musters some reasonably convincing sparks when he is called upon to show how Potter is more than an everyday boy; presumably, Radcliffe will continue to sharpen around the edges in the guaranteed sequels. As Potter's best friends, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are fitting choices, though glazed by Columbus to be early Christmas hams. The "who's who" cast of British supporting talent (the rest are in The Lord of the Rings) is used to mostly great effect: Richard Harris' plays the kindly mentor Dumbledore, while Smith, Alan Rickman, Ian Hart, Zoe Wanamaker, and Star Wars alum Warwick Davis play the eccentric professors. All work their magic, as well as John Hurt as a shopkeeper and Robbie Coltrane embodying the gentle giant Hagrid. The only embarrassment is John Cleese, who seems to have no idea where he or any of the other actors are in his cheesy, mercifully brief cameo.

The special effects, which lean heavily on computer-generated imaging, are a mixed bag. This would have been a very different (and less wondrous film) without CGI, to be sure, but Columbus makes a few missteps. Visual effects supervisor Robert Legato earns high marks for the troll, wizard chess, and Fluffy the dog (don't ask), but the flying sequences (including the dazzling Quidditch centerpiece) are sporadically marred by computer-generated human characters which fail to gel well with the live actors. These failures are fleeting, however; Columbus deserves credit for playing ringleader to a creative team up to the task of faithfully adapting this grand-scale children's fantasy into a rip-roaring cinematic attraction. Next stop—WB theme parks.

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