The first Harry Potter movie opens with a self-fulfilling prophecy, if not an arch commentary on the books' amazing success and the film's inevitable follow-through. In the prologue - or nativity scene, if you prefer - a wizard who dispatches the orphaned baby Harry to his new home predicts that, one day, 'every child in our world will know his name'. And lo, it came to pass. You could never accuse Harry Potter author JK Rowling - who presumably penned that line when she, as the legend behind the legend goes, was a penniless solo mother living on dreams - and the makers of this film of lacking a certain confidence.
Faithful to the Book
Is it too late to retitle this Harry Potter and the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg? As everyone and their dog (or cat or owl) knows by now, director Chris Columbus and his producers have apparently been so faithful to Rowling's work that you could read along in the cinema; but even those who haven't read the book will experience an uncanny sense of déjà vu. The film is a supremely slick pastiche, from the sub-Roald Dahl opening, in which ugly duckling Harry is tormented by his grotesque relatives, to a hairy Richard Harris doing grand wizard Dumbledore as The Sword in the Stone's senile Merlin, all within a CS Lewis-meets-Enid Blyton plotline.
Little Sense of Wonder
What it lacks is a genuine sense of wonder, although Columbus tries to compensate by having his cast of children exclaim 'Wow!' every time they enter one of the fastidious replicas that are the film's sets. The early scenes with the relatives in Little Whinging, Surrey (generally, Rowling doesn't appear to have a Tolkien-like talent for names, but Little Whinging is spot on), push for a familiar kind of British realism, but it all feels rushed - the film seems as impatient as the viewer to get to the magic effects - while John William's score drenches every moment in pathos as though this film is ET and he doesn't let up for two and a half hours.
The appearance of Williams - composer of choice for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas - compounds the mock-Spielberg experience. Columbus did his schooling on the sets of half-formed Spielberg products such as The Goonies before launching his own career in kid-wrangling and sentiment-handling with Home Alone, Mrs Doubtfire and Bicentennial Man, among others.
Still, Daniel Radcliffe is a good, assured Harry, and Robbie Coltrane is ideal for Hagrid, Harry's half-giant friend and protector, and the largest adult role. The scenes in which Hagrid shows Harry through a secret, magic London - including a bank run by goblins, which is nicely imagined - are the film's best. By the time Harry gets to Hogwarts, the boarding school for wizardry, celebrity pantomime season is in full swing. John Cleese wafts through as a ghost with nothing to say and less to do, but some of the other flesh-and-blood cameos - Zoe Wanamaker, Ian Hart, Maggie Smith, John Hurt - seem equally spectral (although a very game Alan Rickman is memorable as the hissing, petulant Snape, potions teacher and schemer).
Beloved by Parents
You can see why Harry Potter is so beloved by parents - in this oddly anachronistic world, there are no televisions or computer screens, while the chess-playing, uniform-wearing public-school milieu is a form of unchallenged visual shorthand for taste, quality and old-fashioned cultural standards, especially for heritage-crazed US audiences. A story, such as it is, finally emerges about halfway through and goes nowhere slowly: something about a philosopher's stone. Along the way, Columbus doesn't just fumble the airborne 'Quidditch' scene - which roughly occupies the same position in this film as the more exciting pod race in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace - he even manages to render dull a moonlight trek into an enchanted forest, complete with unicorns and centaurs.
Like a Prologue
By the end, the entire film has felt like a prologue. Whether the franchise has the stamina for seven more instalments is doubtful, but the hype need never deflate because a film in which characters consume their own merchandise - chocolate frogs with Hogwarts-themed trading cards - hardly even requires an audience. An unexpected upshot is that it may finally make you feel curious about The Lord of the Rings.