I enjoyed this movie immensely. But, like "The Phantom Menace," I've had a very hard time viewing it objectively. There was so much anticipation leading up to its release, I simply enjoyed the experience of being there. Having read all four books in the series a few times each, I am overly familiar with the events in the story. As I watched the movie, my continuing thought was "How well will the next part of the story be translated to the screen?" rather than "How entertaining is this film overall?" I have trouble answering the latter question because I was already entertained by watching a wonderful story dramatized, so I'll never know how I'd have reacted had I seen this movie without having read the books.
Critics talk about how incredibly faithful the movie is to the book, and perhaps I'd have had an easier time detaching the two in my mind had the movie set off on its own course. Indeed, many classic children's movies, like "The Wizard of Oz" and "Mary Poppins," are so successful partly because they're so different from the books that inspired them. But these are exceptions; in my experience, most children's movies reveal their weaknesses in how they diverge from the books upon which they're based. And much of what makes the Harry Potter phenomenon unique is that it is the first time in ages that a children's book, without a movie accompanying it, has generated this much popularity. According to an article I read a year ago, the universe of Harry Potter has become as real in the minds of youngsters and adults as that of a popular movie series like Star Wars. Therefore, it will be very hard for any film based upon it to compete with it. In the minds of die-hard fans, any changes made to the story will be seen as desecrating the fantasy world that Rowling created. That's why it's easy to understand why the filmmakers were so reluctant to change anything.
As a faithful rendering of the book squeezed into a two-and-a-half hour period, the movie is beautifully done. I don't have a single complaint about any of the actors, who successfully bring to life, with the aid of costume design and special effects, the many colorful characters from the book. My favorite character, the giant Hagrid, is played by Robbie Coltrane, and I say with no exaggeration that he is exactly how I imagined him while reading the book. It's as if they took the image in my mind and transferred it to the screen. While I had my own personal image of Snape (for some reason, I always imagined him as the head villain from another Chris Columbus film, "Adventures in Babysitting"), Alan Rickman is perfect in the role. I usually expect to have words of criticism for some performances, but I just don't. The remaining adult actors, including Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall and Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore, are as good as they possibly could be, and the kids do an excellent job of holding their own against these veterans. Some have criticized Daniel Radcliffe for appearing too subdued in the title role, but that's exactly how the character is portrayed in the book: modest, unassuming, and laid-back. The kids who play Harry's two best friends are flawless.
I had a lot of worries about the fact that it was being directed by Chris Columbus, whose entire directorial career so far has consisted of over-the-top slapstick films. I was pleasantly surprised that he did not direct the Harry Potter film in this way. Except for brief moments like the children's delayed reaction to a giant three-headed dog they encounter and Harry's swallowing the quaffle ball, there is nothing here to remind us that this film is directed by the same person who gave us films like "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire." Indeed, I think Columbus may have gone just a tad bit too far in trying not to make the film seem cartoony. I would have liked to see a little more emotion on the actors' faces at certain times. Overall, however, his restraint works nicely in giving the film the kind of believability the book possesses.
But much is left out. Harry's caretaker Uncle Vernon, a prominent character in the book, is given less attention in the movie than some of the bit characters. The gently satirical aspects of Hogwarts School aren't in the movie at all. We never see the ghostly history teacher who died several years back but kept on teaching. Lines like the following--"Professor McGonagall watched [her students] turn a mouse into a snuffbox--points were given for how pretty the snuffbox was, but taken away if it had whiskers"--find no equivalent in the movie. The movie does include platform nine-and-three-quarters, though the way the kids disappear into the wall isn't as mysterious as I had visualized, and the sorting hat is there, minus the great poem explaining the differences between the four schools.
Not that I'm blaming the movie for omitting some details. Some things from the book would not have translated easily to the screen, and it would have been very difficult to stick everything in. Had Columbus done so and allowed the film to be as long as necessary (eight hours, maybe?), like a BBC miniseries, the film might have been a masterpiece, but few kids would ever have had the patience or attention span to sit through it.
The problem is that the amusing details are much of what make Harry Potter such a special story. A whole universe is created in Rowling's series, in which a magical society exists within our own ordinary "muggle" world and is kept secret by a bureaucracy with its own rules, history and politics. The way magic is treated in her books, not as something medieval but as very similar to the way our own contemporary world works, is a large part of their charm. Take away these details, and you're left with a fairly conventional tale of a young wizard fighting an evil sorcerer.
Although the audience I was with broke into applause as soon as the movie ended (something I've never seen happen before, though I don't go to the theater that often), some people have complained about the movie dragging at certain points. I didn't have that problem, but, as I said, I wasn't really trying to get involved in the movie's story. After thinking about it, it does seem like parts of the movie fail to convey a sense of urgency. Why should this be? I never felt that way when reading the books, and this is without a doubt the very same story.
The answer, I think, is that the books portray much of Harry's anxiety in trying to succeed in school (for if he's kicked out, he'll go straight back to his horrible uncle) and fit in with the kids there. The movie doesn't tap into these anxieties enough, so why should we care whether he wins the Quidditch match (other than that he survives in one piece) and gets through the school year? The only real suspense in the movie after he arrives at Hogwarts comes from the story of Lord Voldemort returning, which in the book is almost secondary. Harry's adventures getting along in the school are fun and interesting, but as they are presented to us in the film, there isn't enough tying them all together.
What we have here is a serviceable dramatization of a wonderful children's series, but it doesn't entirely succeed in standing on its own. Perhaps it should have diverged from the book just a little, to compensate for the difficulties in translating some of the book's delights to the screen. In its current form, it's almost like a preview of the book. Its lack of fullness, and its dependence on the book, might actually increase the popularity and endurance of Rowling's series by making those who see the film yearn for more, which they can get from the real thing.