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Pure magic

J.K. Rowling's beloved story translates wondrously to the big screen, with strong performances, memorable settings and dazzling effects giving the movie impact and heart.

By STEVE PERSALL

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 2001


J.K. Rowling's beloved story translates wondrously to the big screen, with strong performances, memorable settings and dazzling effects giving the movie impact and heart.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone immediately feels like a movie we'll see time and again for the rest of our lives. It will become a mildly scary rite of childhood passage, like facing down the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys. It will inspire children to virtues as Willy Wonka or E.T. did. Children will watch it again and again as they grow up, each time reminded of their innocence.

We have a new perennial favorite, and it's about time. Animation is terrific for creating fantasy, but making reality so casually fantastic is rare.

For once, the filmmakers aren't presuming their greatness or tinkering with somebody else's success. Instead, they are servicing wonderful characters and settings and finding greatness in that. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone has all of the hardware at work, but it also has a heart, preserved and transferred from the pages of J.K. Rowling's phenomenally successful novel.

I'll leave it to anyone who has read Rowling's first book to decide what screenwriter Steve Kloves' translation misses. Purely as a movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a frequently stunning piece of work. Director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) comes from the Spielberg school of proteges, having written scripts for The Goonies and Gremlins.

This movie has the master's touch, sweeping empowered children through extraordinary circumstances heavily accented by John Williams' musical score. Whimsy is modulated by actors and special-effects technicians to that razor-thin level that avoids both farce and pomposity. Columbus' film is high-class fun with every dollar of the reported $125-million budget on the screen.

Columbus and Kloves don't sacrifice characterization for gee-whiz moments. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is a Dickensian sort of youthful hero, a put-upon orphan lad raised by abusive Muggle relatives -- humans without magical powers -- after he's left on their doorstep by watchful magicians Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris) and Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith).

Harry doesn't realize his own magical powers until his 11th birthday, when he's invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Upon arrival, he allies himself with fellow students Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) against snobby classmates, plotting professors and a troll in the girls' restroom. Somewhere in the background lurks the evil Voldemort, who killed Harry's parents and left him with that famous scar on his forehead.

Columbus' movie is essentially a highlights reel for the 309-page book that was the introduction to a series. One minor quibble is that Harry doesn't have a concrete quest until the sorcerer's stone of the title comes into play after 90 minutes. The sequels should be even snappier with such formalities out of the way.

The story's episodic exposition enables Columbus to construct memorable set pieces: flooding the nasty relatives' house with postal letters inviting Harry to Hogwarts, the talking Sorting Hat, an oversized life-and-death chess match and a Quidditch game, something like Rollerball on flying broomsticks. Just about the time a viewer thinks Columbus is getting too immersed in gimmickry, he shifts into more personal moments to keep us near and dear and not merely dazzled.

Harris' and Smith's gravity as actors keep the film from straying far into kid stuff. The role of Hagrid becomes a warm comic presence and a convincing technical achievement with models, camera angles and computer tricks making actor Robbie Coltrane appear 9 feet tall. Alan Rickman's deadpan sneer as mean Professor Snape deserves meatier material, but a Rowling fan assures me the character develops as the series continues.

The young actors at center stage are extraordinarily natural performers, never seeming too bug-eyed or cute or any other extreme that child actors commonly invade. Radcliffe's well-scrubbed appeal, Watson's spunk and Grint's affability are a matter of excellent casting, not pushed luck.

They're so perfectly in tune with this revered material, creating trademarks so early, that getting roles outside this franchise may be difficult. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone will keep them, and millions of fans, young forever.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Grade: A

Director: Chris Columbus

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Ian Hart

Screenplay: Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling

Rating: PG; scary images, mild violence and profanity

Running time: 153 min.

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