The wizarding world of J.K. Rowling’s creation began on the page in 1997, which makes it a little surprising to consider how quickly a film adaptation came together. By the time Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — the movie, that is — was released in November 2001, the book series was just barely at the zenith of its popularity (the game-changing fourth installment, featuring our hero’s long-awaited confrontation with his nemesis, was not even two years old). Fewer expectations, then, rested on the shoulders of this film than they might have even a decade later, at which point the book series would have been finished, but still, anticipation levels were high.

Screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Chris Columbus basically delivered on the promise of the novel. It is curious to consider, two decades later, the relative quaintness of the production, which relied (visually speaking) more on Stuart Craig’s production design and Stephenie McMillan’s set decoration than on the effects-driven set pieces — something that certainly is evident in the seams that show in those effects. What resonates more is the instantly accessible tale of good vs. evil, whose lore would only deepen and become more complex with later installments but received those first hints and teasers in this first film. Even as Kloves’ script adhered a little too much to the text of the novel, the pieces made for an entertaining whole.

The story, by now, is likely well-known, but for the uninitiated: Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has been suffering the neglect of his aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) and uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) for 10 years, ever since he was left on their doorstep following the deaths of his parents. That existence is interrupted by Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), a gentle giant who tells him the truth: He is a wizard, world-famous for being the only known survivor of attacks by the dark lord Voldemort, and Hagrid has arrived to usher him into this new world and his rightful home among the students of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and under the keenly watchful eye of its headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris).

At the school, he makes friends in Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), the youngest brother in an economically challenged family of wizards, and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), an impossibly smart witch born of non-magical parents, and an enemy in Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), a snide, sleek-haired menace who looks down upon those less fortunate than him. Harry takes classes, which adds to the impressive British talent — Maggie Smith as stern but fair Transfiguration professor Minerva McGonagall, Alan Rickman as vindictive Potions master Severus Snape, Ian Hart as Defense Against the Dark Arts professor Quirrell and Warwick Davis as diminutive Charms teacher Flitwick, among others — that takes the material with more than a modicum of sincerity.

As it must, a plot develops for young Harry outside of the classes, the interpersonal banter of the students and the Quidditch matches (taking place in the air and on brooms) that work to build this universe from the ground up. A theft at a wizarding bank, a troll that runs rampant on Halloween, a three-headed dog guarding a trapdoor — these jarring clues suggest that someone is up to something nefarious within the walls of the school. Is the culprit Snape, whose hatred of Harry is strong and, seemingly, personal? Is it Malfoy, who seems to revere the darker side of magic? Or is it tied to Harry’s own past and the murders of his parents?

As we discover, it surrounds the stone of the title (or the “philosopher’s stone,” as it was known everywhere outside India and the United States), which inspires immortality and can turn any metal into pure gold. It seems that Voldemort, whose disappearance was concurrent with Harry’s survival of the attack, is after the stone in order to extend his life. The mystery unfolds with intrigue after an opening act of setup and exposition to get us there, and it all leads to a multifaceted climax in which the central trio faces down a colossal plant that strangles the unwitting, winged keys that test Harry’s broom-flying skills, a life-size chess game and, finally, the true villain in their midst.

In the process, the basic template was put in place for the later installments of the series (or, at least, the subsequent five sequels until the two-part finale), to which Kloves returned for nearly every film. Here, “template” is almost a literal term to describe experiencing the plot, which is divided rather cleanly into three acts. That certainly limits the intrigue of the plot and anything that might be at work beneath, but it also allows Columbus room to build the compelling visual effect of this universe. Hogwarts is a resplendent creation, with its seemingly endless corridors and capacity for secret passageways. Other visual effects are a little more dated, such as the cave troll (which no longer believably shares the space of the real actors), but the Quidditch game is this franchise’s thrilling answer to the podracing that had recently been featured in the Star Wars saga (which also brought over composer John Williams to craft one of his most recognizable and iconographic themes yet).

Even if some of those effects fail to hold up 20 years later, there was a spiritedness in Columbus’ approach, which was focused on worldbuilding to some success, and in the performances from the cast (Radcliffe was likable, if a bit stiff, here, while Grint and Watson were the real finds, inhabiting Ron and Hermione immediately) that cut through the adherence to formula. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone worked — as the inauguration of a major franchise, as an origin story for the boy wizard onscreen, as blockbuster driven by set pieces and a grand, sweeping scale.

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