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The Potter Saga, Hogwarts and All / For fans, 'Stone' has Harry's magic

IT WILL HAVE audiences. Whether it will cast a spell over them is a question. But audiences it will have.

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first movie adaptation of the first of J.K. Rowling's phenomenally bestselling novels, is likely to transfigure her most fanatical readers into free-floating embodiments of ecstasy.

Directed by Chris Columbus (the unbeatable "Home Alone," the unbearable "Stepmom"), "Harry Potter" is as faithful a translation as anyone might expect to see, retaining the British flavor of the book while sticking almost too closely to it: Unable to illuminate every reference fully, it winds up providing some incidental references to things that won't make sense to nonreaders - who, at any rate, are hardly the movie's concern.

Overall, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is a pugnacious little fairy tale with a subtext of love and elevating fantasy, with a grimy neck.

The fable, in brief: Harry Potter, son of wizards James and Lily Potter, is the sole survivor of a murderous attack by the unspeakable (literally) Voldemort (aka You-Know-Who), who killed Harry's parents, left him with the signature lightning-shaped scar on his forehead, but was himself reduced to a disembodied malignancy, and grows up knowing nothing about his legend or his legacy, living a-neo-Dickensian orphanhood and sleeping under the stairs.

Harry's summons to Hogwarts - his parents' alma mater and the leading academy of supernatural studies - is typical of the film's high-tech-masquerading-as-low-tech approach to bringing Rowling's very cinematic vision to screen. As letters from Hogwarts are delivered to Privet Drive by a progressively larger number of carrier owls, Uncle Vernon tries to ignore them, destroy them and then flee the jurisdiction of Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris), which we all know is impossible.

The letters, inviting the freshly 11-year-old Harry to the place where he'll learn broom-jockeying, spell-casting and transfiguration, eventually follow the Dursleys to a storm-washed atoll off the English coast, where Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), the mountainous gamekeeper of Hogwarts, has to appropriate Harry in person from the Dursleys, who have unwisely denied the boy's heritage. Letters, and owls, are flying every-where; Hagrid, shot largely by himself and strategically from below, is made huge by suggestion.

The epic game of Quidditch - the Hogwarts game that features 14 players and four very animated balls - has more than a dash of "Power Rangers" about it. But this is OK.

Without making the effects too obvious or slick or overstated, the filmmakers maintain the tone of Rowling's book, whose appeal has as much to do with disorderly childhood as it does with magical fantasy.

The casting is, for the large part, first-rate; a virtual coven of famed English actors parade across the screen, including Harris, Julie Walters as Mrs. Weasley, whose several sons - including Harry's best friend, Ron (Rupert Grint) - attend Hogwarts; Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall (whose transformation from cat to woman is portrayed via the purely retro technique of shadow-on-wall); John Cleese as the free-spirited Nearly Headless Nick, one of the many ghosts who wander through the school; John Hurt as the wand salesman Ollivander; Zoe Wanamaker as Madame Hooch, and the perpetually scene-stealing Alan Rickman, whose Professor Snape is a marvel of understated creepiness.

The problem with "Harry" is, unfortunately, Harry. Daniel Radcliffe, who presumably beat out thousands of other would-be Potters, gives us no genuine sense of awe - not at the wondrous things Harry sees, nor, certainly, at his discovery that he's been a legend since baby-hood.

The young actor, whose line readings range from the monotonal to the virtually comatose, is easily the weakest link in the film; one wonders what Haley Joel Osment might have done with the role, although, frankly, it isn't that rich - not as dryly funny as Ron Weasley, whom young Grint makes so winning, nor as disarmingly charming as Hermione Granger, whom the 10-year-old Emma Watson parlays into the movie's most lovable character.

Harry, sadly, is not even as interesting as Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), his Hogwarts archenemy. And Draco has better hair. But "Harry" is also a movie that is awkwardly episodic - which is in keeping with its source material.

Although graced by such verbal gingerbread as "clambered," "leapt" and "codswallop!" (as well as being part of an English literary tradition that stretches back to "Tom Brown's School Days"), the novel is hardly what you would call a narrative tour de force.

Rowling's strength, instead, is imbuing the very separate scenes she creates with a consistent sense of humor, attitude and affection for her novel's preteen characters - who, except for the fact that they take classes in Charms, Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts, might be attending any tradition-minded coed boarding school in Greater Great Britain.

By adhering to the same structure as the novel, Columbus has made a movie that won't disappoint audiences who want the book in their head to play out on the screen (even if it doesn't get up a full head of steam until the last half hour), but which hardly fulfills its potential as film. He was, though, under an impossible burden - which included making a book into a movie without tampering with the book.

After Steven Spielberg dropped out of the project, a litany of directors lined up for the job. One can only imagine what someone like Jonathan Demme or Wolfgang Petersen or, especially, Terry Gilliam might have done with "Harry Potter."

As it is, Harry's gotten a ride. But at a much lower altitude than his fans might have wished.

 

(3 STARS) HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE. (PG)
The Novel / Publishing phenom about the heroic, broom-riding, Quidditch-playing wizard boy arrives on the screen in a faithful-bordering-on-verbatim translation that is a little short on wonder, but long enough on charm. And it will hardly matter at the box office. With Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Tom Felton, Zoe Wanamaker, John Cleese. Screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling. Directed by Chris Columbus. 2:26 (intense action, violence). At area theaters.

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