Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is located a few degrees east of Dorothy's Oz and a couple of degrees north of Alice's Wonderland. The happy corridors of this possessed castle-on-the-lake are hung with portraits that talk and lined with shifting staircases that take thrilling detours.
There are humongous trolls and baby dragons. There are cobwebs and broomsticks and other levitating objects, such as the constellation of candles that floats above the tables in the dining hall.
Hogwarts - that bailiwick where students are taught the uses of evil and enchantment (and apt pupils learn the distinction between the two) - is the unbilled star of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the eagerly awaited film from J.K. Rowling's beloved novel, which opens nationally today.
Harry Potter the movie is more magic than Muggles (as nonmagical persons are known), but only just.
At its best, the film's visual dazzle equals the tasty wordplay of the novel. But it is overlong, overscored, and curiously misshapen. While the focus of Rowling's saga is the 11-year-old male Cinderella who learns that he is a charmed prince of wizards, the focus of director Chris Columbus' film is Hogwarts. More than occasionally, the elaborate sets overwhelm the characters in this primal account of that supercharged, and in this case, supernatural passage from childhood to maturity. (As befitting a boy on the cusp of manhood, Harry must prove his mastery of snake, wand and broomstick. Freudians will note that these are phallic symbols, but also representations of wickedness and wizardry. )
The film's magic moments wed psychology with physics. Harry (bespectacled Daniel Radcliffe, who resembles a boy Beatle) has spent his life as a virtual prisoner in the suburban home of his Muggle aunt and uncle. Only dimly aware of his powers, Harry has never conjured his freedom. Only when a giant named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) comes bearing his acceptance letter to Hogwarts does the orphan with the lightning-bolt scar on his forehead see a way through the brick wall of boyhood.
First Hagrid and Harry find a chink in a London wall that opens onto Diagon Alley, Main Street for Merlins, where our hero buys his first wand. Then they wend their way to King's Cross rail station, where Harry passes through the masonry to Track 9 3/4 and boards the Hogwarts Express. The Magical Mystery Tour is coming to take you away!
On the train, Harry meets two friends whose attributes complement his and complete him. There is the carrot-topped Ron (Rupert Grint) and the wild-maned Hermione (Emma Watson). In the way that Oz's Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion illustrate the quest for heart, brains and nerve, Ron, Hermione and Harry personify heart, brains and courage. The challenge before them is how to bring these traits into balance.
Much of the primal stuff is nicely done. In particular, Harry's realization that everyone knows more about him than he does elegantly establishes the tone of preteen paranoia. Less gracefully handled is Harry's passage from nonperson to personage, and Hermione's from know-it-all to wisdom. While I salute Steve Kloves for a screenplay that telescopes so much of the novel, I wish he had trimmed a set piece or two and allowed the characters to transition less abruptly. The characters of Ron and Hermione emerge, but Radcliffe's Harry, alas, comes across as rather flat. Too often John Williams' intrusive score upstages Radcliffe's performance.
Hogwarts, as partisans of the book know, is divided into four competing schools. But as seen through Columbus' eyes, it more resembles an upscale summer camp during color war week than an academy of witchery and wizardry.
At this Hogwarts, there is greater emphasis on sports and spells than on studies. And the film's main set piece, an epochal match of quidditch (airborne polo played on broomback rather than horseback), takes us inside a video game rather than a magical world.
Yes, as omniscient headmaster Albus Dumbledore, Richard Harris - that Arthurian aura still clinging to him - looks as if he's about to lead his charges in a chorus of "Camelot. " And, no, I don't know why the mountain troll bears an unmistakable resemblance to Shrek.
While most of the PG-rated film is suitable for imperturbable 6-year-olds and 8-year-olds, there is one sequence involving brutal chess pieces that may be too intense even for older children. I expect that more than a few stalwart 10-year-olds will dive for the safety of a parental lap during this scene.