On his eleventh birthday, orphan Harry Potter discovers that he's a wizard, so off he goes to Hogwarts School to learn the ways of the wand. But it isn't all lessons and making friends: Harry is destined for a showdown with the evil Lord Voldemort.
Sometimes the best plan is to do things by the book. With over 100 million Harry Potter readers desperate to rush down cinema aisles to see their hero on the big screen for the first time, you can't blame Chris Columbus for sticking close to J.K. Rowling's novel. It's one thing to let your imagination loose with the words on the page; it's another to have those images backed up by a multi-million dollar Hollywood budget. And from the very first sight of an owl perched on the Privet Drive road sign to the closing shot of the Hogwarts Express pulling away from the station with the majestic school sitting high on the hills behind, we know that every golden galleon has been well spent.
That's why this faithful adaptation won't fail to win over the book's fans with its 'wow' factor. It thrives on audience recognition. John Williams' score swells at the key moments - Here's your first glimpse of Hogwarts! Isn't Diagon Alley crammed with Dickensian detail! - as Columbus pulls back curtain after curtain to reveal all of the avid readers' favourite bits. The stand-out sequence is the Gryffindor versus Slytherin Quidditch match, a fast-paced medieval Rollerball with broomsticks. It soars where The Phantom Menace's podrace stalled on the third lap.
Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone has one advantage over so many other blockbusters: it already knows that it's the first in a series, so it doesn't have to become a self-contained hit movie before its sequels can receive the green light. This means it deliberately takes its time setting up the characters and the scenario before, like the book, pulling in a quest-cum-whodunnit plot to provide a climax. This structure is fine for the initiated, but it might leave first-timers feeling a bit uncomfortable with the shape of the movie. And because it's more of a kids film than the book was just a kids book, the two-and-a-half hour running time is bound to provoke some cinema squirming from young viewers.
That said, Columbus ensures there's a bit of on-screen magic coming our way every couple of minutes, and not just in the shape of expensive effects. Near-perfect casting ensures character colour from the adult actors and allows the central trio of kids (Radcliffe, Grint and Watson) to prove that three heads are better than one (unless your name is Fluffy).
Coltrane as cuddly giant Hagrid and Grint as Harry's cheeky chum, Ron, steal some scenes, but it's Radcliffe who leads us through Harry's journey from open-jawed underdog to pint-sized hero. Sympathetic and strong, brave and believably ordinary, he becomes the audience's counterpart in this weird world of witches and wizards.
Even though a few of the book's scenes have been cut, fans probably couldn't hope for a better adaptation. It bodes well for the rest of the series, when strong stories start taking precedence over set-up.