by Ed Sumkus

There's only one question the folks who've been waiting not so patiently for this film's release need to have answered. The question isn't whether the film is well made. Chris Columbus (Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone) is certainly competent, if a bit bland, at filmmaking technique (but, oh, would this have been different if the early plan of letting Terry Gilliam direct it panned out). And the question doesn't lean toward how relative unknown Daniel Radcliffe is in the coveted lead role -- truth be told, he comes across, much like his director, as a bit bland, relying too much on a big-eyed wondrous look and a battery of reactions rather than on any solid acting. No, the question on everyone's minds -- from the young kids who have suddenly discovered the joys of reading to the parents who were startled to find that they, too, were riveted by J.K. Rowling's novels -- is this: How close does it stick to the first book?

The answer, happily, is very close. Check that. It's more than close. This is one of those uncanny circumstances where screenwriter and director have come together and somehow hit upon a collective vision of exactly how everyone who read the book pictured characters and events in their minds, then managed to bring that vision to the screen.

The film starts exactly like the book -- a dark night on Privet Drive, with infant Harry being left at the house of his nasty aunt and uncle, and it ends exactly like the book (well, there may be six people in the Western hemisphere who haven't read it, so let's not give things away). Of course there are changes, else the film would have been three times the length. But except for the scissoring of a major rooftop scene involving the gentle giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and his pet dinosaur that delivers some comeuppance for one of the film's two nasty young people, the changes have mostly involved the shortening of scenes. And even this has been done in an inventive and acceptable manner.

For those few who don't know what all the Potter hubbub is about, the story is of a young lad who, after losing his parents (supposedly in an accident, but he learns of a more sinister demise) is brought up by his only relatives until he turns 11. On that birthday, he's visited by Hagrid, who tells him that the reason there have been some "strange" events in his life is because he's a wizard. So he is whisked off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

From there he learns that he's adept at an airborne sport called Quidditch (which makes for the most exciting special effects segment in a film brimming with them), and gets involved in a mystery about the sorcerer's stone, a pretty little gem that seems to hold the secret to immortality. He also makes a few immediate friends, not to mention some formidable enemies. His friends, Ron Weasley (a terrific performance by newcomer Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (another newcomer, Emma Watson, who goes at this role with feisty abandon) turn out to be invaluable with each new adventure, continually reminding all those young viewers just how important friendship is.

Perhaps the movie relies a little too much on hammering that message home. But then the film changes pace now and then and, through some masterful special effects, manages to make anyone watching it either gawk in amazement or flinch in fear when some new gruesome monster comes roaring out of the dark. One of the reasons the books have been such a success is that there's also lots of humor on board. So one of the film's funniest segments -- described in detail on the printed page -- involves shopkeeper Mr. Ollivander (John Hurt) attempting to fit Harry out with his first magic wand, while raucous slapstick and harmless destruction rampages around them.

The film's production design, save for a couple of surprisingly fake-looking background mattes, is excellent, placing the viewer in an alternate world where anything can happen, even though, on the outside, it doesn't look very different from the world we're used to. And it all moves along at a relentlessly entertaining clip, slowing down only to deliver another of its messages, this one about living life to the fullest.

An argument could be made that the only real problem with the movie is the same the book has, that one could do without the central story about the sorcerer's stone and just concentrate on how normal young kids make the transition into wizardry. But that's asking too much from something that's been so readily accepted. Besides, nitpick as much as we want, the film still turns out to be loads of fun.

Bloomsday 2020 @ Spokane

Through Sept. 27
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