Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone (Philosopher's Stone For Our Friends in the U.K.)

Daniel Radcliffe. Rupert Grint. Emma Watson. After today, these will be the three most famous children on the face of the Earth. They may be better known as Harry, Ron, and Hermione. And luckily for them, after seeing Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone, nobody could have done it better.

But the real question on everyone's minds as they wait for the lights to go down is this: Is it as good as the book?

Perhaps not. But only because Chris Columbus' adaptation serves as an abridgement of the novel, so faithful is it to the source material. Every fan of the book will find some favorite bit of business cut from the narrative, but what remains still carries enough charm to make up for it.

To be fair, the first book is also the most awkward of the four so far, being more episodic in nature. Author J.K. Rowling, a great storyteller, had all the pieces when she wrote the first one, but had not yet learned how to blend them into a smooth whole. As a result, both book and movie feel a little bit jerky at times, especially when introducing ancillary characters. A braver filmmaker might have tried to fix these flaws.

He would have been foolish to try.

Instead, Columbus has let those awkward moments help paint Harry's world. We have to stop and understand why no one has a problem with ghosts running around the castle, even if it does make for an obvious bit of exposition. Later on in the film these same ghosts, led by John Cleese, serve to add cool ambience. Like the first year students at Hogwarts Academy, we need a tour first, so rich is the environment Rowling created.

Columbus takes it at a stately pace, lingering on setpieces because, well, kids watching this movie will be glad he did. Every place is richly detailed, and as a result, Warner Brothers really ought to consider building Harry Potter areas at their amusement parks. Diagon Alley begs for a longer stay.

A few choices do hurt a little, mostly made in a slavish observation of set up and payoff. Though Professor Flitwick's (Warwick Davis) Levitation Class will help the kids get out of trouble, it costs us seeing Professor Quirrel (Ian Hart) in action. As a result, this crucial character ends up being a cipher to us, though Hart does what he can by playing up a stutter. And it may be nitpicky, but it is odd that the symbol of the film for so many months in advance, the snowy white owl Hedwig, never actually has her name mentioned anywhere. Nor do we see Harry bond with her.

But the major incidents remain, in all their glory. Ever wondered how a Quidditch match would really look? See the movie. If anything, the movie makes things even bigger than in the minds' eye.

It helps that Columbus has assembled a note perfect cast. As the faculty of Hogwarts, every teacher looks and acts as we might imagine from reading the book. Alan Rickman seems a little old to be Snape, but he makes up for it with a slow sinuating tone that drips with menace. And forget about the kids having this follow their careers: from now on, Robbie Coltrane is Hagrid.

Carrying the title role on his shoulders, 11-year-old Radcliffe manages to be fairly relaxed and natural. If any moments come across falsely, they are in unnecessary reaction shots. (Particularly during the Quidditch match - many adults falter when having to react to the blue screen.)

The effects work (farmed out to a variety of shops) do have an uneven feel. Shrek would have been more believable in the girls' bathroom than the mountain troll that does appear. But whichever shop created the CGI stunt doubles for the kids did an impressive job. We're not yet at photo-realism for these things, but this is the closest you'll get without making them Jar-Jar Binks.

John Williams contributes an appropriately magical-sounding score, though he borrows way too heavily from his Star Wars work. That may bother some, especially when he uses the same instruments. Hagrid plays a little air on a flute that sounds suspiciously like Luke deciding to leave Tatooine.

So you can skip buying the soundtrack. You still need to see the movie. And then read the book. If you've already read the book, read it again.

What's It Worth? $8 -- what's that in Wizard money?

Review of Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets

Derek McCaw

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