Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Fights, frights and an old-fashioned sense of fair play
Click to follow

For a film devoted to magic, wizardry, spells and the training of young warlocks in levitation, potions and stick-borne flight, this is a remarkably solid piece of work. The vast pile of Hogwart's Academy is not a Disney palace of sorcery, but a structure that feels as real as an Oxford college, only with far better food and a ghostly John Cleese in a Billy Connolly haircut.

The wizard world into which young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is ushered by his nine-foot hairy-biker cicerone, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) resembles a Victorian shopping mall, complete with a bank staffed entirely by Dickensian goblins.

In bringing the world's most popular fictional universe to life, director Chris Columbus and his producers have played safe and gone for rich production values and headlong adventure narrative, rather than lengthy exposition.

The result is an odd combination of the flighty and the grounded. The set pieces ­ especially the flying-broomsticks Quidditch tournament ­ are head-spinningly well achieved but are balanced by much ground-level angst. The joke potential of having spells turn out wrong is oddly underplayed, while Alan Rickman (as the sinister Professor Snape) broods like a 16th century Witchfinder General; he is only one discordant element among many (a scene in the woods with a scary centaur and a murdered unicorn is another) that seem to come from an altogether darker movie.

We're never quite sure how much is being played for laughs or for genuine chills. House ghosts waft about dining tables, a homicidal troll trashes the ladies' loos and a three-headed slavering Cerberus called Fluffy stands guard over the titular rock. But at its heart, this is an old-fashioned story about courage, loyalty and belonging. We even get Maggie Smith, as the angular Professor McGonagall, doing a reprise of her Miss Jean Brodie shtick.

It's common knowledge that JK Rowling, Harry's creator, had a lot of say in the production details, and is apparently happy with the result. And despite its American director and the vast amount of dollars that went into it, this is an extremely British film, from its lovingly photographed countryside and its ancient steam trains to its old-fashioned narrative of decency and fair play (boo, hiss to the nasty, slick-haired Draco Malfoy, who winds up in detention for shopping our heroes). Boys are loyal and supportive. Girls are smartie-pants know-alls. Some teachers are a bit severe but the best ones twinkle knowingly at their favourites. Rarely has such an on-screen fuss been made about the business of who gets accepted for which school 'house'. How much you enjoy or deprecate this elderly, Greyfriars-meets-St-Custard's value system will depend, I suspect, on where you went to school. But to find it so very much alive in 2001 is slightly shocking.

Many set-pieces ­ the Quidditch match especially ­ are conducted with speed and extraordinary violence, as if aimed at the vital teenage multiplex audience. Some of the more terrifying moments made me jump out of my seat and would surely traumatise unsuspecting six and seven-year-olds. But there is much to enjoy in this headlong extravaganza. There are fights and frights and beardy-wizardy wisdom from Robert Harris as the ancient headmaster Dumbledore, and a fantastically bombastic score from John Williams.

A rich brew of intertwined cultural nods ­ to Alien, David Copperfield, Gladiator, Hitchcock's The Birds among others ­ will keep sneery adults on their toes. Despite industry fears of children's low boredom threshold, the film's 152 minutes fairly zip by, as do the broomsticks and snowy owls and flying keys. Everything about this movie flies, as will its box-office receipts over Christmas and beyond.