Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone (Cert PG)


Warner Brothers has been forming a human shield of PR people, celebrities and even little Brooklyn Beckham, to protect this film from being seen by the more analytical critics, presumably fearing that we'll 'do a Pearl Harbor' on it.

They needn't have been so paranoid. This is a faithful adaptation of J. K. Rowling's inspirational novel, and the first of what promises to be a hugely entertaining series.

The film-makers still need to iron out a few problems of tone and technique. Warners has to avoid the corporate temptation to underpay everyone involved merely because they're British (there have been ominous rumblings about this from the very start of production).

If those obstacles are overcome, there is nothing to stop this becoming an even bigger moneymaker than the Star Wars movies.

Harry Potter is, as you may just conceivably have heard, an orphan who discovers at the age of 11 that he is famous in wizarding circles.

Even as a baby, he all but destroyed Lord Voldemort, who murdered Harry's parents and was the most evil wizard of all time.

Harry is pleased to be offered a place at boarding school without so much as a test in non-verbal reasoning, and even more mightily relieved to escape his aunt and uncle, the scarily suburban Dursleys, whose attitude towards magic resembles that of the Taliban towards the mini-skirt.

Harry is spirited off via the legendary Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross station to the extravagantly gothic Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

At this appealing mixture of Gormenghast and Greyfriars, he befriends two children called Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, becomes a sporting hero at Quidditch, and comes into conflict with a boy who despises him, Draco Malfoy, a teacher who loathes him, Severus Snape, and Lord Voldemort, the aforementioned evil wizard now bent on terrible vengeance.

The role of Harry is as difficult as Frodo Baggins will be in the forthcoming film of The Lord Of The Rings, since everyone who reads the books seems to identify himself or herself with Harry.

I found myself empathising with the too-clever-by-half Hermione, but that's my problem.

Daniel Radcliffe lacks the spookily professional intensity of the best American child actors, but he looks pleasantly natural and unspoiled.

He radiates joy and wonder at Harry's good luck, and even manages to be touching in the demanding scene where he looks into the mirror of Erised (Desire backwards) and longs for his lost parents.

All the children have been led by their director towards broad comedy, so they sometimes seem to be registering reactions, not experiencing them. But they are always likeable.

Emma Waters stands out as the priggish but vulnerable Hermione, while Rupert Grint gets plenty of laughs as the down-to-earth Ron, Rowling's equivalent to Dickens's Artful Dodger.

Best of the lot, because he makes you forget he's acting, is Sean Biggerstaff as Wood, the Gryffindor Quidditch captain.

Of the grown-up actors, Robbie Coltrane is ideally cast as the kindly but bumbling giant Hagrid. Richard Harris has the perfect combination of twinkle and gravitas as the supernaturally wise headmaster Dumbledore.

Alan Rickman, on top eyeswivelling form as the silkily menacing Snape, puts the Gothic arch into arch-villain. David Bradley is splendidly repellent as the sinister, and almost certainly malodorous, school caretaker Argus Filch.

Maggie Smith and Zoe Wanamaker make the most of the deputy head Professor McGonagall and games mistress Madame Hooch characters, though these remain as underdeveloped in the movie as they were in the book.

And don't be disappointed at the too-brief appearance of Julie Walters as Ron's mum. She'll be back.

Inevitably, certain aspects of the novel have had to be curtailed, such as the terrible twins Fred and George Weasley's appetite for practical jokes and the troubled adolescent development of Norbert the dragon, but pretty much everything important is there.

If the film seems a little rushed and episodic, with insufficient depth of character, that's also fair criticism of Rowling's first novel.

Her later books are even better - darker and deeper, yet just as funny and imaginative.

Whether or not you've read the novels, it makes a refreshing change to see a story that makes sense and doesn't assume an attention span of under ten minutes.

Here is a comedy that is free of gross- out humour, and a blockbuster movie in which the special effects illuminate the story, rather than replace it.

Most of the effects are impressive - especially a startlingly violent game of wizards' chess and a gigantic mountain troll who runs amok in the school loos.

Others are not yet as they should be. The lighting of the children when they are flying on broomsticks doesn't always match the backgrounds.

Hagrid varies tremendously in size from shot to shot - by my reckoning, his height goes from six foot to nine, and back again.

The final showdown with Lord Voldemort is curiously anticlimactic; and Ian Hart makes an unconvincing and lightweight Professor Quirrell.

John Cleese doesn't have anything very funny to do as the ghost, Nearly Headless Nick, and seems intent these days on playing every role as if it is Basil Fawlty.

And poor old Peeves the Poltergeist hasn't made it into the final cut of the film, even though Ron refers to him.

Most damagingly, the script hasn't captured the dry wit of Rowling's prose, preferring to stress the more cartoonish, slapstick side of her comedy.

This results in some major overacting from Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw and young Harry Melling as the awful Dursleys, who are not so much complacently, unthinkingly normal as grotesquely, premeditatedly sadistic.

There are times when the film needed a lighter, quirkier touch - and a less reverential one, when it comes to the music. John Williams's score is bombastic and sanctimonious.

But it would be unfair to dwell on the negative when there is so much to celebrate, especially in Stuart Craig's production design. The alarmingly mobile Hogwarts staircases and ever-changing oil paintings on the walls are great fun.

The goblin-dominated Gringotts Bank, the Great Hall at Hogwarts with its candles floating magically overhead, and the quasi-medieval Quidditch pitch are all spellbinding.

The British designer has won Oscars for Gandhi, Dangerous Liaisons and The English Patient, but this is his best, most exquisitely detailed work - consistently imaginative, often inspired.

Director Chris Columbus still isn't sure when or where to move his camera, and goes for too many overemphatic close-ups.

But the comedy is less crude than in his previous hits Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire, and he seems a different man from the dodgy schmaltz-merchant who tried to flog us Nine Months and Bicentennial Man.

It is tempting to imagine what classier directors might have done. The Tim Burton who created Edward Scissorhands would have produced an even more enchanting Hogwarts and moved the camera more effectively; Steven Spielberg might have made the Quidditch match more thrillingly vertiginous; while Alan Parker would surely have elicited deeper performances from the child actors.

But would the film as a whole have turned out better? Probably not.

Columbus and his American screenwriter Steve Kloves have had the good sense to keep the film very English, and put their faith in Rowling's storytelling.

Her novel may not conform to the Hollywood norm of three-act structure, but it grabs your attention and holds it to the end, which is basically all that any story needs to do.

The film is blessedly free of the Disney tendency to sugar-coat reality and force everything to conform to Californian notions of political correctness. I have already read one hilariously humourless feminist critique of Rowling's books.

There is bound to be a further trendy backlash against a film that understands the benefits of an independent boarding education, believes that talents are often passed from generation to generation, sees no harm in school uniform, and regards competition between children as entirely healthy.

The inter-house rivalry at Hogwarts has an intensity little seen since Enid Blyton's Malory Towers.

It's clear why Joanne Rowling regards the film as a 'relief '. The themes of her book come through. There's Harry's growing sense of identity and belonging, as Hogwarts becomes his home. There's Ron's acknowledgement that, though he may never be a superstar like Harry, he has his own strengths.

There's the two boys' acceptance that, though Hermione may be an insufferable know-all, her academic ability is jolly useful.

The film, like the novels, celebrates scholarship, sportsmanship, loyalty and generosity of spirit, while taking a dim view of violence, cheating, sneaking and snobbery.

How many modern films are as socially beneficial as that?

You should certainly see it, and don't worry - the film doesn't feel unduly long at 152 minutes.

My ultra-critical ten-year-old much prefers the book and points out that the movie is a sort of Greatest Hits version of the real thing. He has a point: it does miss out a lot of the novel's nuances, and the jokes.

But he is already asking to see it again, and when I pointed out that to fit in everything, as he would like, the film would have had to run four hours, his response was simply: 'So?'

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