Poor poor Harry Potter. Orphaned as an infant he's been raised by his beastly aunt and uncle who keep him locked in the room under the stairs and make him serve breakfast. But 11-year-old Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has always known he was different a fact confirmed in a big way when he's invited to enroll at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Despite his horrid family's protests Harry's whisked off by a giant named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) to the magic school where it seems he's something of a celebrity. Turns out his parents were killed by a wicked "fallen wizard " who despite his mighty powers was somehow unable to kill the baby Harry. It will eventually fall to Harry to stop the malevolent sorcerer who still roams the countryside plotting to get hold of a magic stone secreted inside Hogwarts that will give him absolute power. Meanwhile Harry makes some new friends in bossy Hermione (Emma Watson) and affable Ron (Rupert Grint) becomes a star player of Quidditch (like hockey on broomsticks) and defeats a troll rampaging through the girls' bathroom.
Unfortunately Radcliffe brings nothing spectacular to a role that requires it. You don't like him or dislike him; he's a bland Harry who simply reacts (without the sheer amazement you expect from an 11-year-old boy) to the wild and crazy situations he's suddenly immersed in. By contrast Watson carries off her officious Hermione with aplomb and personality as does Grint (who looks startlingly like a young Hayley Mills) as Harry's bumbling loyal buddy. The rest of the enormous cast throw themselves into their we've-seen-these-characters-before roles with gusto: Richard Harris as wise old headmaster Dumbledore Maggie Smith as a prim and proper schoolteacher Tom Felton as Harry's smarmy arrogant rival Draco. Best in show goes to Coltrane as the amiable giant who gets the most screen time of all the adults as he helps Harry along on his journey of discovery. A pageboy'd goth Alan Rickman as sly Professor Snape is good too but underused.
Chris Columbus certainly had his work cut out--remain true to the fanatically revered book or attempt to interpret its magic? As one might expect from the director of Mrs. Doubtfire and Stepmom he took the high road and gives us the book almost word for word (you practically expect Rowling herself to pop on-screen to narrate). It makes for a safely predictable movie but lacks the enchantment of discovery. John Williams' slick grandiose and too-loud score doesn't help either. As it turns out the best special effects are in the not-so-obvious details--pumpkins and candles suspended in the dining hall moving pictures on the walls--rather than the cheesy Cerberus guarding the stone and ghosts like Nearly Headless Nick (John Cleese's cameo) which move about like Disneyland holograms. Even the overlong Quidditch game looks fake-y; the players zoom through a blue sky that might as well be the blue screen. Lots of unanswered questions will remain after you leave the theater: why is Snape such a jerk and how come Harry didn't once use the precious wand he's given except to stab the troll in the nose?