Off to see the wizards

The latest fab fantasy fad hits with a touch of greatness.

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Harry Potter-mania, they’re calling it. If you’re old enough to actually remember Beatlemania, this is a different craze. It’s prehormonal (it doesn’t have anything to do with teenage girls shrieking for the boy band de jour on MTV’s “TRL”). But if you’ve ever stood in line to score the hottest sensation (from the newest record or tickets for the Fab Four to Tickle Me Elmo), you might understand it: It’s about bragging rights, being the first kid on your block to wave your prize or souvenirs of it in the faces of your less-fortunate friends, coloring them greener than Oz with envy.

Advance tickets for a movie? Yes. Better than 20 years ago, I stood in line for more than an hour to score an opening-night seat for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Potter’s hype has upped the ante. The same parents who dutifully lined up to buy their kids the latest Pokémon merchandise and ’N Sync CDs bought their opening-night tickets days beforehand. I even had a plan “B” for getting in to see the movie, but Saturday afternoon, the second day of its opening weekend, I walked up to the box office of my neighborhood theater 10 minutes before show time, bought my ticket without a hitch and took a seat in a theater not quite packed with kindergarten- to middle school-aged kids. After promos (including a Harry Potter-themed minivan commercial) and countless kid-flick trailers, the lights went down and Potter’s magic lit up the screen.

Wow. Or in the words of the junior wizards of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, “Brilliant!” Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is as impossibly packed with goodies as Santa Claus’ bag. Screenwriter Steven Kloves steps through the looking glass of his comedy-tinged dramas Wonder Boys (2000) and The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) into the delightful depths of Harry Potter’s fantasy, fairy tales and, deeper still, myth. He successfully graces Harry’s escapades with touches of comedy, melodrama and even kid-friendly horror.

Director Chris Columbus is well experienced in effectively showing those touches in his big screen kiddy adventures. The title of his directorial debut was auspicious: Adventures in Babysitting (1987). But his breakout movie was the hit Home Alone (1990). Columbus developed his rib-tickling and tear-jerking skills further in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). Few directors in Hollywood have his track record for coaxing effective performances out of children. With Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Columbus has finally found a vehicle that can display all of his talents. He’s made and delivered a fantasy film that might stand up in the cinematic pantheon with sci-fiers such as the original Star Wars trilogy and The Matrix (1999) — and that last great big screen children’s story featuring a wizard: The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Both filmmakers had a literally phenomenal story to work with. J.K. Rowling, the author of the best-selling Harry Potter series, has created a fantastic universe by opening up the routine world of schoolkids to magic. Once at Hogwarts, Harry and his classmates take their breakfast from golden vessels; his back-to-school list includes a cauldron and a wand; and, of course, only the trendiest of flying brooms will do. Rowling’s attention to detail goes from living chocolate toads that come with famous wizard cards to lectures and labs in potions and levitation.

The kids loved the movie. It’s got everything: a story familiar to most (the movie sticks close to the book), animals (real and fantastic) and cool thrill rides (on a giant troll’s back and brooms that fly like fighter jets). Even the youngest sat on the edges of their seats for the whole two-and-a-half hours — and seemed to want more.

The Harry Potter books, and now movie, are more profound than past kid fads. They tap into the wellspring that feeds Cinderella and the Alice in Wonderland stories, and flow even more deeply from Arthurian romance and classic myth. By giving us geeky heroes who are cool on their own terms, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone empowers us all.

Visit the official Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Web site at harrypotter.warnerbros.com.

E-mail James Keith La Croix at letters@metrotimes.com.

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