Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone
To date, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books have sold more than 100 million copies, won mostly adulatory reviews, and inspired a fervent cult following, becoming one of those increasingly rare occasions in which the literary world has had an impact on popular culture. Much as a film adaptation was inevitable, it's almost a shame that Rowling's fantastical universe has been lifted off the page, co-opted from the imagination of millions of readers. And it's an even bigger shame that the chief imagineer is director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Stepmom, Bicentennial Man), a Steven Spielberg protégé whose weakness for precocious brats and cynical button-pushing suggests that he learned all his lessons from Hook. Entrusted with the Potter franchise, Columbus was determined to stay faithful to the source, so if Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone turns out to be his best film in a walk, it's a testament to the strength of Rowling's vision and the peerless cast that brings it to life. Working from a solid script by ace screenwriter Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys), Columbus fares best when he stays close to his wry, sweet-natured hero and tells the story through his bespectacled eyes. Defying an unhappy cinematic tradition of bowl-haired moppets, Daniel Radcliffe gives a modest and winning performance as Potter, an orphaned boy who has spent the last 10 years living under the stairs of his adoptive parents' house, unaware of his grand destiny. On his 11th birthday, Radcliffe gets whisked away by an affable giant (Robbie Coltrane) who acquaints him with his supernatural gifts and invites him to study at Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry. A magical castle surrounded by a black forest, Hogwarts is led by benevolent headmaster Richard Harris and a team of instructors (Maggie Smith, Ian Hart, and a wonderfully sinister Alan Rickman, among others) who teach students to cast spells, make potions, and master their broomsticks and magic wands. But Radcliffe and his two outcast friends (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) face a larger challenge when they confront the wizard who killed his parents. A grab bag of storybook elements plucked from Tolkien, Dahl, and C.S. Lewis, Harry Potter gets off to a rousing start, as Rowling's hand-me-down universe opens up for its hero and seems fresh from his astonished perspective. But Columbus doesn't let a special effect pass without overdoing its sense of wonderment, as if the audience won't know to be awed unless he lays on a John Williams score with extra sprinkles. Harry Potter begins to lose its grip during an expensive-looking "Quidditch" match, a game that's like a cross between Rollerball and the pod race in The Phantom Menace, but is about as exciting as watching someone else play a video game. At 152 minutes, the film tries to squeeze in as much of the Rowling tome as possible, but the length grows more oppressive just as it should be gaining momentum for the finale. More Potter movies are in the pipeline, but the franchise seems exhausted halfway through the first.