Great expectations

Dickens, Tolkien, and George Lucas are the fathers to this precocious orphan.


directed by Chris Columbus with Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, and Ian Hart opens Nov. 16 at Cinerama, Majestic Bay, Metro, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, and others

ONE DOWN, SIX to go. Shrewdly conceived and marketed as an adolescence-spanning franchise to reward young readers as they pass through their pimply years, J.K. Rowling's 1997 Harry Potter series opener will please its intended audience while straining parents' patience. Put simply: Hire a baby-sitter to take the children to this one, or instead treat yourself to a matinee of Mulholland Drive—about the same length—while they're so occupied. Full of CGI enchantments and admirable sentiments about friendship, loyalty, and school ties, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone still offers precious little to the parental set. Unlike Monsters, Inc. and Shrek, which mix some over-their-wee-heads gags with preteen high jinks, the PG-rated Stone is strictly a kids' affair.

Our hero, as everyone on earth knows, discovers his wizardly powers and is summoned to Hogwarts boarding school upon his 11th birthday. Like Cinderella at a ball that never ends, orphaned Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) leaves behind a suitably horrid stepfamily in favor of an eccentric, magical, and thoroughly posh campus. It's impossible to miss the class implications here, which parallel Rowling's sudden rise to publishing wealth. From a drab, awful, tacky suburb, Harry is transported to an opulent kind of medieval-Victorian-Ralph-Lauren fantasyland, where everyone wears elegant robes, tweeds, and scarves bearing their house colors. Hogwarts is divided into residential colleges like some paranormal Oxford; rivalries and competitions among these four houses take up an alarming part of Stone's two-and-one- half-hour running time.

In fact, the great bulk of Stone is consumed with tedious exposition: getting to know the cast and mastering the silly, Tolkien-like nonsense names. To wit: Harry's best pals are clumsy, red-haired Ron (Rupert Grint) and smug know-it-all Hermione (Emma Watson); his school protectors are Professor McGonagall (an arch Dame Maggie Smith) and the gentle giant Hagrid (Cracker's Robbie Coltrane). Turbaned Ian Hart is the stuttering nice instructor; amusing Alan Rickman is the glowering unfriendly one. Presiding over the whole school with a Gandalf-like beard is Dumbledore (Richard Harris, underplaying for once).

WITH SO MANY introductions to make, Stone has precious little plot. The actual challenge for our three young sleuths—find the magical stone, prevent it from falling into evil hands—would barely fill a half-hour TV show. You can imagine the frustration of American director Chris Columbus (Mrs. Doubtfire) trying to render every by-the-book detail of Rowling's burnished universe (the candlelit banquets, the paintings-come-to-life, the Escher-like moving stairs, etc.). At times, the film feels like a peewee Chariots of Fire minus the running bits. Columbus has a freer hand, thankfully, with the effects, which include some not very scary ghosts (including John Cleese), an unfriendly Shrek-like troll, aerial broomstick polo (not nearly on a par with Star Wars acrobatics), an amusing talking hat, and a very cool cloak of invisibility.

Throughout, our Luke Skywalker-like hero must assume the heavy mantle of being the Chosen One. Young actor Radcliffe is given the thankless task of performing one astonished reaction shot after another to Hogwarts' wonderments; like poor Mark Hamill, he's upstaged by the better-written supporting roles of his two friends. You can be sure there's a "dark side" to battle; when that showdown comes, however, it's hardly exciting—but nor will it frighten younger children. (Speaking of the George Lucas influence, John Williams provides overdone fanfares to every Stone story point.)

Magic is reserved for campus, Harry is told, but that edict ultimately works against Sorcerer's Stone. (Does he break the rule later? He'll have to, if the books and movies are to succeed.) Magic is only special in the incongruous context of the real world, not in a wizards' academy where anything goes. Even as Columbus tries to add some Indiana Jones pep to Stone's anticlimactic trapdoor-and-catacomb ending, it's Harry's pre-Hogwarts experience at a zoo that sticks with you. Getting the first taste of his unsuspected powers during a visit to the reptile house, the astonished boy carries on a dialogue with one of its scaly inhabitants. That unlikely rapport suggests how young readers respond to Harry's own imaginative liberation after likewise being raised in captivity.

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