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

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.

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.

Even a brief outline like this reveals Rowling's inspiration by a long line of literature going back to fairy tales and folk legends of old. Charles Dickens's influence is also everywhere. The trail gets hotter when you remember C.S. Lewis's great books recounting "The Chronicles of Narnia" and his less-known "space trilogy" of science-fiction novels, which touch on similar ideas about the battle between darkness and enlightenment. J.R.R. Tolkein comes into the picture with "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," which were clearly among Rowling's major models.

Moving to more contemporary fare, there's more than a hint of "Star Wars" in the character of Voldemort, a brilliant wizard who turned to the dark side of his art. Will he turn out to be Harry's real daddy when the last installment comes out?

The big difference between "Harry Potter" and the Lewis and Tolkein trilogies is that the latter are fantasies for adults - books full of phantasms and wonderment, but also anchored in social complexities and psychological perplexities that mirror the world we actually live in.

Rowling's book and Columbus's movie fall back on storytelling gimmicks - coincidence, happenstance, stereotyping, caricature - knowing young readers don't yet realize what shortcuts they are.

This is a time-honored approach to children's literature, and it's helped countless authors produce books that nourished all of us as we grew up. Great children's tales portray reality in direct, uncomplicated ways that help youngsters understand life in manageable stages. Rowling is a master of this fine

art. But that shouldn't cloud the distinction between well-told tales for kids and fiction that addresses mature minds on terms of equality and respect.

The same goes for movies. Everyone loves "Lady and the Tramp," but we grown-ups know that the views of life and love in pictures like this (including "Titanic," its cleverly disguised remake) are a tad less sophisticated than those the genuine classics hold out to us.

That said, Columbus has done a rousing job of bringing Rowling's rambunctious story to the screen. The eerie corridors and ever-shifting stairways of Hogwarts are as daunting, haunting, initially bewildering, and ultimately comforting as when Rowling painted them in prose. Visions of menacing evil, including the revelation of Voldemort's sinister hiding place, are as harmlessly scary as they are tactfully unsensationalized.

Just as important, Columbus has orchestrated a symphony of first-rate performances. Daniel Radcliffe looks and acts just right as Harry, not the most popular kid in school but not the nerdiest, either. Emma Watson is just as good as Hermione, the bookish girl who has the right answer to (almost) everything. Rupert Grint outdoes them both as well-meaning Ron Weasley, combining the expressive face of a 12-year-old Tom Courtenay with the comic skills of a Monty Python member in the making.

On the adult side, Robbie Coltrane steals much of the story as Hagrid, the amiable giant who can't quite control his obstreperous pet dragon or his own unstoppable mouth. Richard Harris is an imposing Dumbledore, gentle John Hurt is a memorable magic-wand salesman, and Alan Rickman tames most of his hammier impulses as Professor Snape, a key figure in the mystery Harry must solve to stay alive.

If you're disappointed that Peeves the poltergeist didn't appear in this installment, he'll surely show up in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," due at this time next year.

Perhaps the hype will have settled a bit by then, allowing the achievements of Rowling and Columbus to be judged for what they are - not instant artistic classics or incisive explorations of the cosmic unconscious, but shining examples of clean-cut entertainment for the PG set. This is more than enough to assure "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" a box-office take that any alchemist would envy, a front-running position in the coming Oscar race, and a fair measure of lasting fame into the bargain.

Rated PG; contains mild vulgarity and scenes too scary for the youngest viewers.

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