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It doesn’t take long for Harry Potter neophytes (such as myself) to see the powerful allure cast by this young wizard -- as displayed in the new Warner Bros. film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. However, the movie's opening scenes are a bit unsteady, with Harry as the poor victim of stifling foster parents. He lives under a staircase in a room barely big enough for a single twin bed. And the foster parents take a particular fright when letters start arriving for Harry, letters in florid penmanship on old parchment stationery. The father seems to realize the danger posed by the letters and burns them.

These early scenes flirt dangerously with making Harry a suffering innocent. But when Hagrid (a near giant of a man) enters to whisk Harry away to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the movie instantly climbs to a different level altogether. We’re soon treated to a trip to a hidden shopping district (accessible from the wall of a tavern’s restroom) where a witch or wizard can satisfy all of their witchcraft or wizardry needs -- brooms, wands, potions, you name it. This environment is wonderfully realized with sets that tilt and lean. Nothing is square. All lines are twisted in a delightfully kinetic display of set design. And the movie continues to weave its spell in the following episode set at a train station, where Hagrid gives Harry a ticket and then departs. The only trouble is the ticket says "Platform 9¾" -- which doesn’t seem to exist!

If any doubt remains about the powerful spell being cast over the audience by this movie that doubt is dispatched upon sight of Hogwarts School, which appears at the far end of a lake, rising from craggy hills. The school is a vintage castle of thick stone walls and tall spires, dark and imposing at night, which is how Harry and his fellow first-year students first see the school. They approach in tiny boats that slowly bob across the black lake as the castle looms above them. It’s a marvelous scene realized in glistening stone and ominous shadows—a masterful mix of computer-generated backgrounds and miniatures.

These opening scenes are all about Harry’s arrival at school, and never before has an expedition to academia looked so wonderfully exciting and entrancing. The students have arrived to learn everything they can (not to complain and plot subterfuge, as in most contemporary movies). They prize the lessons they receive, and these lessons take place in magnificently evocative classrooms. Mind you, the school still has bickering between various factions. Some teachers can hardly he considered competent and others may in fact be duplicitous. So this never-never land of academia isn’t without its troubles, but the commitment to learning is compelling and contagious. Anyone who has ever attended a university and has fond memories of its hallowed halls may experience some nostalgia while watching Harry Potter.

Daniel Radcliffe takes the starring role. He's a dead ringer for the Harry Potter pictured on the book covers of J.K. Rowling's novels. He’s surrounded by an impressive collection of actors: Richard Harris plays Professor Dumbledore, the head master of Hogwarts School; Dame Maggie Smith plays Professor McGonagall (who starts out gruff but eventual warms to the students); Robbie Coltrane nearly steals the movie as Hagrid, Hogwart's groundskeeper; John Cleese makes a surprisingly brief an inconsequential appearance as Nearly Headless Nick; Alan Rickman (Hollywood's favorite bad guy) plays Professor Snape, the school's resident expert on the black arts; and John Hurt plays Mr. Ollivander, a shopkeeper who sells wands.

The most important supporting actors are Rupert Grint, who plays Ron Weasley, and Emma Wastson, who plays Hermione Granger. These are the characters who will accompany Harry on the story’s central expedition -- to discover what the giant three-headed dog is guarding in the school’s attic. They’ve been told this part of the school is strictly forbidden, but after they accidentally stumble onto this floor (thanks to a capricious moving staircase), their curiosity remains piqued. This quest becomes the movie’s main storyline.

Director Chris Columbus (a veteran of Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire) and screenwriter Steven Kloves (who wrote Wonderboys and has already completed the screenplay for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) have taken great care to not just emphasize the plot elements but to also create a world of benevolent mysticism. That means letting us experience some time in the classrooms, a game of Quidditch (which is a mixture of soccer and basketball--played on flying brooms!), and the formalities of academia, which generally take place in the Great Hall, a cavernous space lit by hundreds of candles that float thirty feet overhead. These details which allow us to experience the wonders of Hogwarts School are arguably more important than the plot. When the movie does get around to revealing its plot, the following scenes come in such a rush that the proceedings don’t necessarily make much sense. Why, for example, should Ron become the de facto chess expert who paves the way for a successful end-game campaign? (Maybe this is explained in the book.)

As a result, even with a running time of two-and-a-half hours, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is somewhat rushed and reliant upon Harry Potter fans bringing prior knowledge along with them to the movie theater. But even Harry Potter neophytes should have fun with this movie. It’s a masterpiece of art direction and set design (thanks to production designer Stuart Craig and visual effects supervisor Rob Legato) that evokes a magical, imaginative world. The filmmakers show great respect for the willingness of children to remain transfixed in their seats for such a protracted period of time. Old wisdom suggested children’s movies should very rarely linger past 90 minutes. However, it’s the digressions that really make this movie such a compelling experience -- provided you're not immune to their magic.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Warner Bros.
Movie Web site: Harry Potter



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