Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

Based on the first of J.K. Rowling's mind-bogglingly popular novels, Chris Columbus's lavishly appointed film aims for fidelity to the source in all things. And if it's a little airless, in the manner of certain Masterpiece Theater adaptations of literary masterworks, no matter. Fans will be so relieved to find the world they love transplanted to the screen intact that they won't mind a bit. Orphaned Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), who lives with perfectly dreadful relatives, has no idea what his 11th birthday holds in store: an invitation to attend the very exclusive Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where tomorrow's occult movers and shakers get their start. (In Rowling's world, magic has nothing to do with Satanism or evil; it's a hereditary gift, like flexible joints or perfect pitch.) Harry also learns that he's famous in mystical circles: Though his parents were murdered by a rogue wizard so wicked he's generally referred to as "You Know Who," the infant Harry survived with only a lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead to show for the experience. Great (if unspecified) things are expected of young Harry, and so off to Hogwarts he goes, wand, cauldron and familiar (an imperturbable snowy owl named Hedwig) in hand. En route, Harry falls in with two fellow first-year students, bossy but brilliant Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and red-headed Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), a far better friend than he is a magician. The student body, magical powers aside, resembles pretty much any gaggle of apple-cheeked English adolescents. The staff, by contrast, are a more daunting lot, more so by virtue of being played by a formidable cross-section of contemporary master thespians: patrician director Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris); starchy Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), who teaches transfiguration; high-strung Professor Quirrell (Ian Hart), defense against dark arts; diminutive Professor Flitwick (Warwick Davis), levitation; sinister Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), potions; brisk Madame Hooch (Zoe Wanamaker), flying; sour-faced caretaker Mr. Filch (David Bradley); and gamekeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), a gentle giant whose fierce demeanor hides a heart of gold and the sort of loose lips that sink ships. The film's special-effects wonders include a three-headed guard dog named Fluffy, staircases that change configuration at whim, benevolent ghosts (including John Cleese as Nearly Headless Nick), animated paintings, a troll, a baby dragon, belligerent chess pieces and a swarm of flying keys. It may be long, but it's not boring — how could it be when jack o' lanterns float lazily overhead in the dining hall, and the venerable Maggie Smith turns into a cat?