Rated PG - Running Time: 2:32 - Released 11/16/01

The task of translating a wildly popular novel (especially a children's novel) into a feature film must be quite daunting; one can only imagine the pressure of having millions of rabid devotees watching to see how faithful the film is to its source material. Such is the case with J.K. Rowling's fanciful tale Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone, a magic-filled story about a young boy from outside London who overcomes an abusive family situation to discover he's the ablest young wizard ever to wave a wand. In a few short years the book has become one of the most famous and widely read children's novels produced in the last century, and its sequels have had no less success, first in England and then spreading exponentially throughout the U.S. and the world, with kids lining up at bookstores to get their grubby little spell-casting mitts on the next episode.

Said pressure is surely the reason why director Chris Columbus's treatment of the pre-teen wizard's story, adapted from Rowling's best-selling 1997 novel by screenwriter Steven Kloves, is so witheringly long and tedious. I'm sure fans of the book see the need for the endless exposition and voluminous backstory to be incorporated in the film; I myself think it is an unfortunate choice, especially for a film aimed at the pre-teen crowd. While Harry Potter certainly does not disappoint from a technical standpoint, with the spectacular digital effects that have become standard of late, and it includes some notable British names in the adult cast, it is dreadfully slow and packed with minute details laboriously explained over and over by its pre-teen players, as if it were necessary to drive the point home without the slightest subtlety so that the young and fidgety audience would be absolutely sure to get the point. Egad, this sucker is long.

Harry Potter (played with affable blandness by Daniel Radcliffe, who's already working on the sequel) is a special child, a magical child born of two magical parents who were killed when he was an infant by a wizard so evil no one even likes to speak his name. Harry is grudgingly adopted (in Cinderella fashion) by his aunt and uncle, forced to cook, clean, and live under the stairs until his eleventh birthday, when he is whisked off to wizard school to fulfill his destiny by friendly and extremely hairy Gamekeeper Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). The fact that Harry has some ability in the black arts had always intrigued him, but he has no idea how famous he is among the magical crowd until he arrives at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where his name is spoken with reverence even by the headmaster, Professor Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris). As it turns out, Harry is known not for being the child of slain parents, but for being the only one who survived.

As Harry's career at Hogwarts begins, he meets friends, like fellow freshmen Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson); enemies, like the sullen and devious Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton); and professors of all temperaments, like the stern but friendly Deputy Headmistress Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), who likes to conduct class in the form of a common housecat, and the shadowy Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), who is barely able to contain his contempt for precocious young wizards like Harry. Excelling at most things he puts his mind to, the boy competes in a visually remarkable game called Quidditch (a sort of airborne version of cricket/basketball/Smear the Queer played while flying recklessly around the stadium on broomsticks), finds an enchanted mirror which reveals the innermost desires of the one who stands before it, and obtains a magical cloak of invisibility with which he can sneak around various forbidden areas of the school and generally break the rules. In so doing, he and Ron and Hermione meet many strange creatures like a menacing green troll, an immense, three-headed dog, and a Norwegian baby dragon named Norbert, and eventually discover that something's not right at their new home. Something of great power is hidden somewhere, and our intrepid three novices must find it and keep it from falling into the wrong hands.

Like most big-budget, late-fall kids' movies of the last decade, this one is full of well-designed atmospheric charm, full of wondrous, expensive effects and mediocre-at-best acting, full of media hype and holiday-season merchandising opportunities. Sometimes the actual film pales in comparison to the feverish swirl of attention it generates. This movie's producers want it to be one of those defining moments of its generation like Star Wars; its plot bears shades of that film (even boasting a John Williams score), but Harry suffers from overindulgence on the part of its producers. There is no need for this film to be over 2 hours long; there are some sequences (like the opening section about Harry's nasty family life) that could have been radically abbreviated and still made the point. Author Rowling is reportedly thrilled with the film; I'm sure she is, since very little effort was made at abbreviation of her complex story. Its three young stars are adequate (but not spectacular) in their roles, and the script is fun and whimsical but often overexplained. But then, folks, you have those effects. Many a moviegoer will gleefully shell out the eight bucks to be spellbound by the film's pixellated wizardry, and few will be immune to its captivating charms. ****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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