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  Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone rating 3.5/5 Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
     

         

Chris Columbus has made of Harry Potter exactly what you would expect. No surprises. Nothing to write home about. And yet thoroughly entertaining.

Those who love the book will be disappointed by what's been left out and how certain things have been depicted. Those who love Home Alone will feel in safe hands. Those who have never heard of J K Rowling - cave dwellers, etc - will think a magical mystery story in a boarding school harks back to Clifftop Adventure by Eileen Over.

Steven Spielberg is reported to have passed on the movie because it presented no challenge. The way Columbus approaches it, you can see his point. The only originality comes from the source material, which is too rich to do justice in two-and-a-half hours.

As a result, characterisation suffers in favour of special effects. There are moments when you think you are part of a sword-and-sorcery fantasy. The importance of the philosopher's stone is lost somewhere between the three-headed mastiff that falls asleep at the sound of music and the anaconda-like tree roots that are activated by fear.

The story in a nutshell is that 11-year-old Harry, who lives with his unkind uncle and aunt, is whisked off to wizard school, where he makes friends with Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). He turns out to be a natural at midair broompolo, a game that is taken as seriously as rugby at Rugby.

The head wizard (Richard Harris) is wise and white-bearded. The bossy headmistress (Maggie Smith) is Jean Brodie in another life. The sinister spells master (Alan Rickman) sounds as if he's giving an audition for Dracula's man servant. The even bossier games mistress (Zoe Wanamaker) could have doubled as a commandante in a Nazi war flick.

The three friends discover odd goings-on in the spooky part of school and begin to suspect that the wicked wizard who killed Harry's parents is still alive and that he is searching for the magic stone that will give its owner absolute power.

It's all too much for Columbus and scriptwriter Steve Kloves to fit in. Only the loyal odd job man (Robbie Coltrane), who dresses like a down-and-out and looks 10ft tall, has a personality that overcomes the barrage of effects. The school shares an architect with the witch in Snow White and it's interesting, in a politically correct kind of way, to see black faces amongst the pupils.

Ghosts float through rooms for no particular reason - is that John Cleese without a head? - and staircases move when they feel like it and portraits come to life, but do not interfere. Excitement never slips its leash until a troll attacks Hermione in the girls' lav.

Daniel Radcliffe, as Harry, is perfectly cast. He is the boy who finds the courage to change things in a world where nothing is what it seems. He plays him with infinite subtlety.

Pity about the owl. It should have been Harry's confidante. Instead, it's the mailbird.

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