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Spellbound 

Lavish Harry Potter film should bewitch audiences of all ages

An orphaned youth living with an aunt and uncle who don't understand him. A grizzled wizard who helps him develop supernatural powers he never knew he had. Two loyal sidekicks who spend much of their time bickering with each other. And a former student of the elderly wizard who ends up being seduced by, quote, the Dark Side, unquote. The basic similarities between Star Wars and the first book in J.K. Rowling's enormously successful Harry Potter series are so blatant that George Lucas' eyebrows might have arched had his lawyers brought the matter to his attention. But ultimately, Lucas (whose own film, it should be noted, was itself inspired by Akira Kurosawa's 1958 The Hidden Fortress) wouldn't have had to concern himself with the matter, since the continuing adventures of the budding boy sorcerer took off in their own "gee, wiz" direction. And where Harry went, millions of fans followed, as the first four books in the proposed series of seven have already sold over 100 million copies in dozens of countries.

It didn't take long for Hollywood to get into the act. After looking at scores of directors (including Steven Spielberg) and settling on Chris Columbus, Warner Bros. decided to move ahead with their spare-no-expense adaptation of the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Now, my decree has always been that a movie adaptation should be judged in relation to how well it works as a motion picture, regardless of what changes were made from the original text material. Having said that, though, it should be noted that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone ends up working on both levels: as a stand-alone project and as a worthy adaptation of a novel that, while more of a marketing phenomenon than a literary landmark, is nevertheless funny, inventive and full of spirit and spunk. Only nitpickers who insist on a 100 percent accurate adaptation (that would be a five-hour movie, folks) will quibble with this film's discreet trims and minor changes; everyone else can expect to be satisfied with this 150-minute cut crafted by Columbus and scripter Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys).

Columbus has a deserved reputation for making cloying films -- those insufferable Home Alone flicks and the unwatchable Bicentennial Man all bear his name -- so the biggest surprise concerning Sorcerer's Stone is the way the movie walks the precipitous line between being too syrupy for adults and too grave for children. This balancing act begins with the three kids cast in the principal roles: Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter, an 11-year-old lad who suddenly learns that his late parents were wizards and that he also has magical abilities; Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley, an engaging boy who, like Harry, is a new student at the venerable Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), a supremely confident know-it-all who joins Harry and Ron in their escapades at the institute. All three actors are consistently endearing rather than annoying (no Macaulay Culkin face-slapping antics from this lot), and the natural ease with which they work together goes a long way toward drawing audience members directly into their world.

And what a world! Triple Oscar-winning production designer Stuart Craig (The English Patient), doubtless working in close tandem with members of the visual effects team, has outdone himself with the set designs on view in this polished piece. Diagon Alley, which contains the row of shops specializing in wands, flying brooms and other metaphysical merchandise, is a suitably grungy stretch of musty stores -- think of it as a period version of a strip mall. And Hogwarts School, with its ever-shifting staircases, animated portraits and grand old halls, isn't portrayed as some sort of theme park (which, I suspect, is how many filmmakers would have conceived it) but rather as a somber house of melancholy, with untold secrets and potential dangers lurking behind every unlit corner.

With an entire British film empire from which to choose its supporting players, Harry Potter benefits from some letter-perfect casting that, truth be told, almost seems too easy. Who else but Maggie Smith could have been hired to play the strict yet benevolent Professor McGonagall? Who else but Alan Rickman could play the sinister Professor Snape? Who else but Robbie Coltrane could fill the sizable shoes of the oafish yet loyal groundskeeper Hagrid (the best character in both the book and movie)? And who else but Richard Harris could have been tapped to play the kindly head of the school, Albus Dumbledore? (Well, OK, Ian McKellen could have nailed the role, but he's busy playing another wizard in an upcoming fantasy yarn equally as hyped as this one.)

If there's a flaw in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, it's that the picture may be a little too breathless for its own good. This isn't, say, an Indiana Jones adventure tale, a matinee cliffhanger in which our hero is expected to complete one feat of derring-do after another. Instead, for all its hocus pocus, the strength of this tale rests with its colorful characterizations, in the way it brings out the "winner child" in all of us via Harry's courage, Ron's affability, and Hermione's cleverness. But because the trio is thrust from one adventure to another, they never have time to fully breathe as individuals; in this respect, the movie has more in common with the frenzied funhouse atmosphere of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or Spy Kids than the genuine empathic pull of The Wizard of Oz or A Little Princess. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; it just means that the movie's emotional content is occasionally overshadowed by its incessant technical achievements, preventing it from reaching the heights that initially appeared to be within its grasp.

Still, Harry Potter's lack of depth is hardly an impediment to any enjoyment of the film -- even with the realization that, with several more movies on the way (current plans are to release one a year), it's going to be impossible not to eventually be familiar with every aspect of this blockbuster franchise. But in the meantime, before the cinematic branch of this Harry hysteria gets completely out of hand, sit back and enjoy what turns out to be an enchanting magical mystery tour.

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