First of all, children will love Harry Potter. While this is as much a media mandate as a seat-filling shoo-in, the movie's target audience is very well served here, with blithe whimsy to spare, balanced by some sinister elements lurking beneath the trap door of nightmare. Meanwhile, most adult viewers may not help but apprehend Harry Potter as a gentle juggernaut, a formidable worldwide literary movement, a massive phenomenon the full impact of which remains to be seen. (Sorry, John, but this may be bigger than the Beatles.) Children are celebrating these books all over the place, but young Potter is also making the rounds of libraries, universities, and car stereos on long rides.
Happily, then, the first movie of the Harry Potter series casts a splendid spell, as screenwriter Steve Kloves has transcribed J.K. Rowling's novel nearly to a T, with precious little tweaked or trimmed. Even better, director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) strides beyond his established predilection for syrup and pratfalls, finally challenging himself in the field of awe and beauty. Surely, purist detractors will lodge myriad complaints, but at about two and a half hours, this film strikes an ideal compromise between practical duration and supernatural atmosphere.
Now, for the remaining three or four residents of Earth who don't yet know the story, the titular Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is a bespectacled English boy enduring his painfully prissy foster family, the Dursleys (Fiona Shaw, Harry Melling, and the lovably horrid Richard Griffiths). On Harry's 11th birthday -- much to the family's ire -- he is invited to enroll at the prestigious Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, there shepherded by a friendly giant named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), who reveals Harry's true identity as a wizard.
During a shopping spree for supernatural school supplies (where he meets John Hurt in a poofy wig and Warwick Davis and Vern Troyer as goblin bankers), Harry learns about the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Hagrid reveals that an evil wizard named Voldemort killed Harry's true parents (whom the Dursleys told him perished in a car crash), and that, as a baby, Harry narrowly escaped. Soon thereafter, on a northbound steamer called the Hogwarts Express, Harry learns from two new friends, humble Ron (Rupert Grint) and not-so-humble Hermione (Emma Watson), that his wizardly fame precedes him.
What follows is a wonderful, yearlong adventure at Hogwarts, wherein Harry's destiny is gradually revealed via various professors and classmates. The ever-transforming Warwick Davis (Willow) shows up again as Charms Professor Flitwick, and Zoë Wanamaker is the cat-eyed Madame Hooch, who teaches the children to fly on their brooms. There's also quirky Professor Quirrell (Ian Hart), who teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts, and the feline Professor McGonagall (a sublime Maggie Smith), who specializes in Transfiguration. At the helm is the venerable Professor Albus Dumbledore (a stately Richard Harris), the most powerful and enlightened wizard.
Rather than turn the palatial Hogwarts into a ghastly New Age colony, Rowling and Columbus have impregnated it with malevolence, with corridors leading to certain death and a forbidden forest filled with sinister creatures. Agents of darkness, particularly Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), also lurk about the grounds. Although supposedly specializing in Potions, the rather dubious Snape is obviously spearheading some clandestine mission, as Harry, Ron, and Hermione learn from inopportune sightings and clumsy Hagrid's loose lips. Fun may be had, but danger is afoot.
As but one example of Harry Potter's narrative functionalism, Harry stands transfixed before a bewitched mirror, and Dumbledore appears, eager to explain the mirror's power. It shows us nothing more than the deepest and most desperate desires of our hearts, explains the old wizard, who could be talking about any and all media. This mirror gives us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away in front of it. The beauty of this project, ultimately, is that it reminds us how crucial it is, in all aspects of life, to get up and wonder.