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Friday, November 16, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

A spectacle of magic: 'Harry Potter's' focus remains on the hocus-pocus of the book

Seattle Times movie critic

Let's cut right to the chase here: The movie version of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is, as the Brits might put it, quite good. Quite good indeed, one might say. Remarkably good. Splendid, in some aspects. And yet ...

Let's face it: All who read and loved the book have a version of this film in our heads, and it's probably just a wee bit better than Chris Columbus' version. We, of course, didn't have to worry about budgets and running times and troublesome special effects. By waving the magic wands of our imaginations, we have the perfect "Harry Potter" movie. Could anything captured on film by a mere mortal possibly compare?

But Columbus' film should score well with the millions of fans, all toting their own mental "Harry Potter" checklists, who'll be lining up at the multiplexes for weeks to come. It's easily the best work of the director's career; there's not a trace of the gooey sentimentality that plagued "Stepmom" and "Bicentennial Man." And thanks to a wondrous cast, top-notch production design and a smart (and scrupulously faithful) screenplay from Steve Kloves, Columbus' "Harry" is often truly magical.

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

***½
With Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane. Directed by Chris Columbus, from a screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling. 152 minutes. Rated PG for some scary moments and mild language. Several theaters.

At its center, of course, is a little boy in round glasses. Daniel Radcliffe, only 11 when the film was made, has a lovely, tentative wistfulness that perfectly suits an orphaned child living with neglectful relatives (the red-faced Dursleys are indeed the most horrid of Muggles). Radcliffe may not yet be an actor of great range, but the role wisely doesn't require emotional fireworks, and his shy, slightly crooked smile is immensely appealing.

The movie closely follows Harry's journey from the miserable Dursley household to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he gets in touch with his inner wizard, battles forces of evil in order to recover the all-powerful Sorcerer's Stone, and — perhaps most important — makes friends.

As Harry's sidekick Ron Weasley, Rupert Grint nicely captures Ron's wry sense of humor. But the real comic timing here comes from 10-year-old Emma Watson, who brings a delightfully self-satisfied bounce to the bossy Hermione. She flounces about making pronouncements, tossing back her hair and wrinkling her little nose — I see a Meg Ryan-like future for this kid.

The grown-ups, without exception, are just fine, with two performances standing out. Alan Rickman, all coal-black hair and eyebrows (he looks like a character from a Tim Burton movie), brings his oil-dripping-on-velvet voice to the nasty Professor Snape. Clearly, he's having even more fun than he did in "Galaxy Quest." And Zoë Wanamaker makes a spiky-haired dominatrix of flying instructor Madame Hooch, striding through the rows of kid wizards like a confident matador ready to face the bull.

Visually, much of the film is breathtaking, particularly the hundreds of flickering candles suspended in the air in Hogwarts' Great Hall; the shiny red-and-black whimsy of the Hogwarts Express train; and the film's centerpiece, a terrific high-flying Quidditch match that plays like a combination heraldry tournament, rugby match and wild theme-park ride.

But it's perhaps inevitable that the movie, in being so carefully faithful to the book, feels just the tiniest bit rote. It's essentially a straight visualization of the novel: very careful, very well done, but lacking a certain spark of its own. Those who know the book won't be surprised by anything here, and consequently it's a hard task for the film to work its magic. In the eyes of the three children at its center, though, the movie creates its own enchantment.

Moira Macdonald can be reached at 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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