Dir: Chris Columbus. UK-US 2001. 152mins.

JK Rowling's Harry Potter books have become such a global literary and cultural phenomena (over 100 million copies sold in more than 46 languages) that it's almost impossible to treat the franchise's first film without disregarding the juggernaut hype that has touted it as the biggest film event in UK history. Overall, Chris Columbus's rendition of the adventures of the world's most beloved wizard is a well-made, likeable picture that will please its primary target audience: the books' fans. However, from a strictly artistic viewpoint, Harry Potter is not a particularly exciting film: it strenuously tries but only intermittently succeeds in echoing the magic of such seminal children's fantasies as E.T: the Extra-Terrestrial or The Wizard Of Oz. The excessive running time (two-and-a-half hours) will limit the number of showings per day and may also prove trying for more mature viewers. On the other hand, the heavy reliance on special effects, which dominate at least half of the story, should encourage repeat viewing by teenagers, a crucial factor for making Titanic and now Harry Potter a hugely successful film in the UK and internationally. A savvy saturation campaign and a year-long media blitz should help this truly critic-proof film (even more so than Planet Of The Apes) become the most popular film ever released in the UK, with total grosses in the neighbourhood of the Star Wars films and perhaps even Titanic.

Celebrity author Rowling must have learned some useful lessons from the experience of her colleague-writer Anne Rice, who first condemned the casting of Interview With The Vampire, but then, on seeing the final version, reversed her opinion and embraced the film in a series of paid editorials in the trade press. Although Rowling had a say over the casting and worked closely with Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves, she didn't interfere with their work and presumably saw the film only a week before its world premiere. The author's seal of approval is crucial in satisfying the worldwide fans of her four published books (three more are in the works), all of which will be made into films during the next decade.

One can only speculate what a visionary director like Steven Spielberg, who at one point considered making the film, could have accomplished with a similar text. As he has shown during his career - the highlights of which are the Home Alone pictures and Mrs Doubtfire - Columbus is a craftsman whose proficiency seldom rises above the material. Fortunately, he has been given a sharper narrative to work with than that of his former efforts, which include the sappy Stepmom and broad comedies such as Nine Months.

In adapting the novel to the big screen, Columbus has obviously been constrained by readers' expectations and made a functional film that feels like a visual illustration of the thick text. At the same time, more astute viewers may quibble with the inherent clash and resulting compromise between the director's uniquely American cinematic sensibility, which is rather bland and middlebrow, and the specifically British roots of his literary source. Overall, this Harry Potter registers as an attempt by a commercial American director to make a uniquely looking British film. For better or for worse, despite the sophisticated digital technology the end result is an extremely old-fashioned movie whose look can't be specifically grounded in any particular era (which may help the picture's commercial prospects in the long run).

The story begins with a wonderfully executed scene in which an eccentric biker drops from the sky and leaves a baby with his surrogate family. Cut to a decade later, when the 11-year-old Harry Potter (Radcliffe) has learned to live with his bullying Uncle Vernon Dursley (Griffiths), his callous Aunt Petunia (Shaw) and the constant whining of his spoiled cousin, a bumbling fool named Dudley (Melling). For their part, Harry's relatives have just as reluctantly learned to tolerate the unwelcome presence of their orphaned nephew, whose residence is confined to the cupboard under the stairs.

Unfortunately, the sensitive, precocious boy serves as a constant reminder of Petunia's "wayward" sister and her brother-in-law, whose untimely demise has been veiled in mysterious secrecy. Over the years, they have fed Harry with various versions about his parents' death. It is one of the strengths of Kloves' well-constructed script that each progressive episode discloses another layer of the parents' disappearance. Like the Brothers Grimm and most fairytales, Harry Potter draws on the universal need of children, particularly orphaned and abused ones, to retrieve their parents' true identity and unravel the circumstances of their demise.

Harry dreads the impending arrival of his 11th birthday, which, based on the past, should offer no excitement, no presents and no special treats. In one of the film's nicest moments, a mysterious green-ink letter addressed to Harry arrives at the door, accompanied by a curious messenger, an owl. Uncle Vernon destroys the letter before Harry has a chance to read it, but the next day another owl descends on the house with another letter. During the following week, numerous letters and owls (in a sequence that feels like a parodic tribute to Hitchcock's The Birds) continue to turn up on Harry's doorstep. Fearing they can no longer suppress the peculiar correspondence, the Dursleys flee to a remote hut, but suddenly a loud crash breaks the door and the awesome bulk of an enormous giant named Hagrid walks in.

Furious with the Dursleys for destroying the letters and trying to conceal their nephew's identity, Hagrid reveals a secret that changes Harry's life: his parents didn't die in a car crash (as his relatives had told him), but were in fact murdered by an evil wizard, who etched the distinctive lightning scar on Harry's forehead. From that point on, Hagrid becomes a sort of guardian angel, appearing unexpectedly out of nowhere. The presence of Hagrid, splendidly played by Scottish actor Robbie Coltrane, is integral to the yarn's overall emotional impact.

Soon, Harry is pleasantly surprised to find out that he is actually the son of two powerful wizards and that he himself possesses unique magical powers, revealed when he inadvertently orchestrates the release of a talking snake from a zoo. The story proper starts when Harry is invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, embarking on the adventure of a lifetime that begins with the discovery of a secret Platform 9 3/4 at London's Kings Cross station. In the film, as in the book, the school's segments are influenced by Charles Dickens and films based on his work, such as David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and the movie musical Oliver!.

It is at Hogwarts that a lonely Harry finds the home and family he has never had. Although Harry is the dramatic centre, as soon as he lands at school he befriends two wizards-in-training, Hermione Granger (Watson) and Ron Weasley (Grint). Through their various adventures, which become progressively more sombre and scary, the trio form an intimate bond based on trust, friendship and loyalty, which are the tale's moral values.

Radcliffe, who won the lead over thousands of kids in open casting calls, is well cast as an intelligent, bespectacled boy, effortlessly showing a sense of perpetual wonder and curiosity. Radcliffe doesn't play a perfect hero - he has flaws as an academic