j.k. rowling's fans can relax -- Chris Columbus does not screw up Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone. When Columbus was picked to helm one of the most highly anticipated children's films ever, sweat broke out on the brows of all Potter devotees. How could the filmmaker responsible for the Home Alone movies, Step Mom and (yuck!) Bicentennial Man, adapt Rowling's tightly packed, imaginative and decidedly British tale of boy wizard Harry Potter?Somehow, Columbus swallows his taste for Hollywood sappiness to deliver a first-rate movie that stays true to the story, a remarkable achievement when you consider what a complex and demanding book it is.
One reason the movie works so well is that it's long -- clocking in at almost two and a half hours -- which meant that screenwriter Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys, The Fabulous Baker Boys) could keep many of the book's ingenious scenes. The downside is that the film drags a wee bit, and if you haven't read the book you'll feel the lag.
Twelve-year-old Daniel Radcliffe plays Harry, the magic world's most celebrated orphan, who survived the attack on his parents by the evil wizard Voldemort. Harry is being raised by his despicable muggle (non-magical) relatives when he's suddenly enrolled in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He's befriended by Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson), and together they uncover a plot to steal the philosopher's stone, a gem that gives its possessor eternal life.
Radcliffe is joined by a who's who of UK acting talent, including Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Ian Hart, Fiona Shaw, John Hurt, Richard Griffiths and John Cleese. These big names are shuttled into small roles, but I'm sure the idea of appearing in what will most certainly become one of the highest-grossing films of the year made the cameo-like roles appealing. They do look like they're having fun, happy to entertain -- especially Coltrane, who plays the loose-lipped Hagrid, and Rickman, who slinks about as the villainous Professor Snape.
I wanted more scenes with Maggie Smith as the efficient Professor McGonagall -- there are moments when you think you're looking at Miss Jean Brodie 30 years later and only a bit past her prime. The only acting complaint I have is with Harris, who doesn't quite capture Professor Dumbledore's incandescence and fortitude.
Radcliffe embodies Harry's constant state of bemused wonder perfectly and, like any hero threatened by lots o' scary stuff, steadfastly refuses to let fear overtake him.
The movie does cut back on the fear factor, which isn't such a bad idea. The books grow progressively scary, so the movies should do the same.
Harry potter and the philosopher's stone directed by Chris Columbus, written by Steve Kloves, based on the book by J.K. Rowling, produced by David Heyman, with Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris and Robbie Coltrane. 151 minutes. A Warner Brothers release. Opens Friday (November 16). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 94. Rating: NNNN