Which is what makes director Chris Columbus' adaptation of J.K. Rowling's phenomenal series of novels so compelling. Through all the hype and great expectations of what is a planned seven-film franchise, Columbus keeps it simple. There's something extraordinary in these characters' search for meaning and purpose in their lives, and this key theme certainly makes the transition to film.
Initially, Columbus seemed an odd choice for such an ambitious project, especially in light of the competition; Steven Spielberg passed, and Warner Brothers nixed eccentric auteur Terry Gilliam (Brazil, The Fisher King). That left the director of such innocuous (and wildly successful) comedies as Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire to shepherd one of the most anticipated films in a decade. But with Harry Potter, Columbus' unobtrusive style feels like a solid match. He's no fool; with a faithful script by Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys), a quintessentially British cast, and thrilling special effects courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Columbus steps back and allows the true stars to shape this timeless tale.
The mystical world in which Harry Potter finds himself -- filled with Gryffindors, Hufflepuffs, Gringotts, Quidditch and the like -- is so evocative that special effects alone wouldn't be enough to do the story justice. To be sure, the computer animation is astonishing, from the flying brooms and talking snakes to the snoring three-headed dogs and cranky ghosts roaming about. But there's more going on here, and it speaks volumes about the film's collaborators that the visuals work in conjunction with the heart and soul of the picture.
Harry Potter is not merely a grouping of unrelated computer stills; rather, it's a simple tale of an unpopular orphan boy destined for greatness. Harry is a gangly mess, with his tussle of brown hair and broken glasses -- not the traditional physical make-up for Hollywood heroes. But he maintains an inner strength that newcomer Radcliffe is able to convey with his strong, open eyes. Radcliffe's ability to infuse Harry with an understated force is not an easy task. The young wizard's plight is the spirit of the film, yet Harry is shy, his words reserved and his movements self-restrained. However, simmering under the surface is a boy desperately searching for his identity.
After the deaths of his parents, Harry is forced to reside with his insufferably closed-minded aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, in their cookie-cutter neighborhood, victims of their own ignorant fears. Harry's bedroom is under the stairs in a dank, smelly cupboard. He has little lighting with just a small gilded portal that squeaks open whenever his uncle feels the need to shout at him. Basically, he's a second-rate citizen in a third-rate household.
It's from this setting that Harry will embark on his expedition to understand his destiny. This journey will take him to the Hogwarts School of Wizardry, where a dazzling array of characters and special effects pick up the narrative. Harry and his fellow wizards arrive by boat to Hogwarts on a glistening, deep blue night. The castle, substantial but not foreboding, is lit with welcoming candlelight -- a stark contrast from the browns and dull grays that dominated the Dursleys' home. As Harry enters the cavernous dining hall, magic is everywhere. Candles hover in mid-air, walls quiver with moving paintings, and staircases shift at their own whimsy.
It's also here where we meet Professor McGonagall (played with delicious vigor by Maggie Smith). Supervising the introduction ceremony is the wise, paternal Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris), with his silver beard cascading to the floor. This pitch-perfect British casting continues through to Alan Rickman as the dangerous and surly Professor Snape, and Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, the beloved giant with a heart of gold. Rowling demanded an all-British cast, and the result is inspired and certainly aids in the individuality of this story. Clever cameos by John Cleese and Julie Walters set up their characters for expansion in the sequel.
Blessed with such a strong cast, Rowling's novel and ILM's visuals, Columbus stays the course and focuses on the story's inherent humanity, making Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone worth all the fuss. Just as Hagrid bursts through a cabin door early on to declare to the lonely boy, "Harry, yer a wizard," we know that Harry's -- as well as our -- adventure has begun. And it's off to a nice start.