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Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2001

The empire strikes back

Pottermania sweeps the globe

Staff writer

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Rating: * * * *
Director: Chris Columbus
Running time: 152 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

An underdog was pitted against a nasty, big bully in the age-old battle between good and evil. And the underdog won. A fair summary of the plot of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," yes, but also of the British take on the making of the film.

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Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) puts the Sorting Hat on Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)

Wielding more power than her strongest wizards, "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling banished the mighty Steven Spielberg from the project, replacing him with a more malleable director -- Chris Columbus, who said, apparently without irony, that he would treat the text with a reverence worthy of Shakespeare. Rowling also insisted on British actors and locations, and advised actors on set on how to play their characters. Such was her clout that when the $125-million film premiered, it did so in London: The first in Warner Bros history not to open in Los Angeles. Warner's executives were fuming. Hurrah! Triumph over the big Hollywood bully.

Or so it would seem. Some rather important details were glossed over by the British media, such as the fact that the funding, like the director, was American. Clearly there is a big sense of Britishness at work here, and perhaps national pride prevents us from mentioning such trifles as funding and direction. The British Embassy in Tokyo held a promotional "Harry Potter" reception -- unheard of for a children's film; the British Tourist Authority is pinning its hopes on "Harry Potter" reviving the industry after a bruising year. Everyone wants a slice of the magic.

And why? Because the story of the underdog, chosen by fate to battle a powerful evil, is a key to box-office success (Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars" and Neo in "The Matrix" come to mind) -- and is one of the classic themes in literature. Indeed, many literary critics (i.e., people whose own books haven't sold anywhere near as many as Rowling's have -- 124 million and counting) have complained that Harry Potter is just a mishmash of the best bits of classic children's literature, from C.S. Lewis to Enid Blyton and Lewis Carroll. But sniping, griping and versions of the "if something is popular, it must be lowbrow" argument are a disservice to what Rowling has done and ignore a crucial fact. "Harry Potter" might be indebted to older works, but it achieves something magical and rare: It makes adults wish they were children, and it enthralls today's wired kids -- enough to make them want to read.

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Our heroes confront the monstrous three-headed dog, Fluffy.

The American version dumbs down the title to "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," but despite the worries about the director of such toe-curlers as "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" being let loose on "Harry Potter," Columbus has kept his word: The film is almost entirely faithful to the book. Sure, there is a sheen that only Hollywood can give -- stunning visuals, lavish special effects and a sweeping, Disney-like score by John Williams (though, thankfully, no songs) -- but the big-budget treatment doesn't spoil the story.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is an orphan, his wizard and witch parents murdered by the evil Lord Voldemort. He lives in the cupboard under the stairs in the suburban hell of his aunt and uncle's faux-Edwardian house (4 Privet Drive, Little Whingeing, Surrey). Harry's life is one of Dickensian misery. Dressed in his chubby, spoiled cousin's hand-me-downs, wearing glasses held together with tape, Harry, who knows nothing of his special background, is constantly persecuted by his relatives.

As the film opens, it's Harry's 11th birthday, and he is soon due to go to the miserable local state school. Enter Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), a friendly giant and Keeper of Keys at Hogwarts. Hogwarts? The school of witchcraft and wizardry, which Harry has been selected to attend. "You're a wizard, Harry," Hagrid tells him. And his aunt and uncle? They're "muggles": ordinary people, without any magical powers.

Harry's astonishment is palpable, and Columbus builds the excitement from here on in.

Hagrid leads Harry on a dream shopping trip in the secret Diagon Alley in London. Witches bustle about buying potion ingredients, children press their noses against windows to look at the latest model of racing broomsticks. Harry and Hagrid start off at Gringotts, the wizard's bank run by goblins, to collect money left to Harry after his parents died. Next stop is Ollivander's wand shop . . . where the magic begins.

Ollivander (played with extravagant menace by John Hurt) is an old wizard who supplies members of the magic community with their wands. "The wand chooses the wizard," he says, handing Harry a series of wands to test. When Harry grips his one, his hair stands on end as magic charges the air like electricity. The wand is another clue to Harry that his fate is inextricably linked with that of Voldemort, who must be kept away from the philosopher's stone -- a source of immortality -- at all costs.

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Schoolfriends Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Herminoe (Emma Watson) in a rare moment of calm

By the time Harry gets his wand, Hagrid has gotten Harry his wizard's familiar: an owl. For most of the rest of the film, Harry's eyes are owl-like, round with wonder. And seeing Columbus' film does the same thing to the viewer.

If only it were real! Bullies like Harry's cousin Dudley could be zapped with a pig's tail. You could eat Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans (some might taste of coconut, toffee or ice cream, some of grass, earwax or vomit). A terrifying three-headed dog (called Fluffy) would guard secret treasures.

But if anything makes a child yearn for Harry's world to be real, it's got to be Quidditch: the dangerous, high-speed, high-skill ball game played on broomsticks. Harry is the youngest member of a school Quidditch team in a century, and his school house, Gryffindor, is up against bitter rival Slytherin. The entire school turns out to watch. The scene in which Harry and his teammates, dressed in their scarlet-and-gold robes, are waiting to fly out over the Quidditch ground evokes a genuine thrill of anticipation. The confrontation is Columbus' giddy centerpiece, filmed with Alnwick Castle in Northumberland as the backdrop. The inevitable comparison is with the pod race in "Star Wars: Episode I," but Quidditch, and this film, are far better.

There are always going to be problems adapting a book for the screen (although Quidditch actually makes more sense here than it does in the books): How do you compress all that description and background into a 2 1/2-hour-long film? Some scenes that are spelled out in the book are in the film given only seconds or cut completely (Peeves the Poltergeist is missing from the film). Columbus solves the descriptive problems with a visual lushness rarely seen in children's films. Hogwarts is stunning, a vast Gothic amalgam of Gloucester Cathedral and medieval Oxbridge colleges. Its walls are lined with portraits whose subjects come to life, and its floors are linked by impossible, Escher-like staircases. Due to the time problem, the scenes come thick and fast (it might be worth reading the book before seeing the film).

Columbus slows down for the key scene where Harry discovers the Mirror of Erised, a looking glass that reveals the deepest desires of the person it reflects. Harry has never known his parents and, in the mirror, he sees them for the first time, smiling and waving at him. Returning the next night to gaze again at his dead parents, Harry finds the headmaster, Dumbledore (a doddering Richard Harris), who tells him that people can go mad longing for something that is impossible. "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live," he tells Harry. Potter-obsessives would do well to listen up.

Radcliffe handles the mirror scene well. While he is often a bit too formal and serious, the gravitas works when staring at his dead parents. At other times, Harry can grate a little: The poor little orphan, suffering all alone yet calmly accepting his destiny to save the day and then the world, he seems a bit too Christlike for comfort. (Whisper it: Could his fate, too, be like that of Christ?)

Harry's friends, on the other hand, are delightful. The prim-and-proper cleverclogs Hermione and the mischievous yet loyal Ron are wonderfully brought to life by Emma Watson and Rupert Grint: Leia Organa and Han Solo to Harry's Luke Skywalker. Full of enthusiasm and fun, they have an infectious sense of humor, thanks in no small part to Steve Kloves' screenplay.

As for Harry's school enemies, they belong to fantasy land. Draco Malfoy is a cute little blond boy played as a more-mischievous-than-evil tyke by Tom Felton, who might be thought of as a problem child by his teachers, but who isn't much of a bully by today's vicious standards. In the book he represents the next generation of evil. Let's hope he gets nastier on his next outing.

Among the adults, Alan Rickman stands out, luxuriating in the role of the is-he-good-or-evil Professor Snape, the potions master. Coming in a close second to Rickman, Maggie Smith also clearly had a lot of fun with her role, as the sometime tabby cat/stern Scottish transfiguration teacher Professor McGonagall. Ian Hart, meanwhile, puts in an effective performance as the stuttering Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Professor Quirrell, who hides a terrible secret beneath his turban.

Richard Harris was apparently approached three times by casting agents before he agreed to the role of Dumbledore. Maybe the agent should've taken the hint. Harris' Dumbledore is a kindly old soul, a benevolent granddad who doesn't seem to hold the power and authority of the Dumbledore of the book.

I was a touch apprehensive before I saw the film. Anything with this much hype can't be good. But Columbus resists putting his own spin on it, and sticking to the text, he could hardly go wrong. The book works because it's a dream-come-true epic, a modern fairy tale. The film is hugely enjoyable entertainment, even for adults -- some at the preview screening I saw watched the Quidditch match with slack jaws. For children, it's much more than that: This is their 1977, this is their "Star Wars." Their hearts will be in their mouths for the whole film. If you remember the thrills and the fears and the passions of school, you'll love it. If you still don't get it, forget it: You're a muggle, and the magic doesn't work on you.

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