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'Potter' magic proves enchanting - but only for a short spell

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 16, 2001

Harry Potter has ridden his broomstick into multiplexes everywhere. In a telling sign of our times, responses to the movie's arrival have focused at least as much on its financial prospects as on its cultural worth or entertainment value.

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Will the 11-year-old wizard sink the international box-office record - a towering $1.8 billion - set by "Titanic" a few short years ago? Will soft drinks, construction kits, and other tie-in products fly off shopping-mall shelves on the strength of his magical appeal? Will the four J.K. Rowling books about his adventures sell a million more copies as the movie adds to their mystique?

Such questions are understandable, given the astonishing success of Rowling's series. The four books published so far have reportedly sold 116 million copies in 47 languages in 200 countries. In an age when cultural events are reported on with a statistical glee once reserved for the sports pages, it's not surprising that media attention is riveted on how much return Warner Bros. will reap for its investments of more than $120 million in the film's production and more than $40 million in the initial marketing campaign.

But none of this sheds light on the one question that really matters as "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" finally opens: Is it a good movie? The answer is yes, with reservations.

In terms of craft, energy, and traditional fantasy-film fun, there's much to celebrate. Steve Kloves's screenplay dodges the temptation to improve on its source, staying as faithful to Rowling's book as Harry's friend Hagrid is to Albus Dumbledore, the master wizard they both love. Chris Columbus has directed the movie in the same spirit, bringing the novel's characters and events to life through colorful images that make a world of spells and sorcery seem as solid as the one we travel every day.

What you won't find are qualities a truly great movie adaptation might have offered - new layers of meaning, perspectives on the story that only film images could provide, fresh insights into the tale's moral and ethical questions.

Fans of the novel will have great fun reliving its adventures, and newcomers will receive a rollicking welcome to its magic-touched realm. But enthusiasm for Rowling's book has often obscured the fact that it's a completely kid-centered yarn, probing huge issues - most notably the struggle of goodness, love, and humility against evil, hatred, and arrogance - in terms simple and straightforward enough for any smart youngster to grasp. The movie operates on the same valuable but limited level, serving up about 2-1/2 hours of diversion that captivate the childlike eye and ear while offering little for the grown-up mind and heart.

As most moviegoers will know long before they settle into their seats, the tale begins on a suburban street where an odd-looking stranger strikes up a conversation with a patiently waiting cat. The stranger is Dumbledore, headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the cat turns out to be Professor McGonagall, who teaches transfiguration there. They're joined by assistant Rubeus Hagrid, who's carrying infant Harry in his arms, ready to deliver the child to relatives who'll bring him up.

Although he's just a baby, Harry has been through harrowing times, as we soon learn. Both his parents were killed by Voldemort, a wizard so wicked that few dare speak his name. Harry himself was also attacked, but mysterious magic left him unharmed except for a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. His survival has made him a legend in the witch-and-wizard crowd.

Harry is too young to remember any of this, and Dumbledore thinks he'll grow up happier if he lives with a family of Muggles - folks ignorant of the magic world - and doesn't learn his history until he's older. The main part of the story begins as Harry approaches his 11th birthday and starts receiving weird letters inviting him to attend the Hogwarts school.

Soon he's cheerfully honing his magic skills, mastering a broomstick-borne sport called quidditch, learning details of his dramatic past, and realizing that Voldemort remains a very real threat - to him, and to everyone on earth if he gets hold of an enigmatic object being guarded at Hogwarts by spells, enchantments, and a three-headed dog monster named Fluffy.