I have to preface my review by admitting that I've never read any of the books of the series, and do not intend to. I don't think they would be awful; I just do not have the spare time. So, that means that this review is written having only experienced the film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and nothing else other than marketing and people's opinions about the series.
The first step in writing a successful children's story always seems to be to take a bag or two of Scrabble tiles, throw them against a wall, collect whatever nonsensical words happen to tumble down, and create your story around them. Oompa Loompas and Vermicious Knids; Heffalumps and Woozles. J.K. Rowling must have used eight or ten bags of tiles in penning the opening to the beloved Harry Potter series.
Hogwarts. Hufflepuff. Quidditch. Muggles. Diagon Alley. Just about everyone's name excluding Harry's and Ron's. "Hermione" sounds like it should be part of the female reproductive system. Only Dr. Seuss and Anthony Burgess can really rival Mrs. Rowling in this regard. Most of these made-up words are well-used and in keeping with a children's novel of this type, expect perhaps for "Dumbledore." The name doesn't sound as commanding as it should, given it's the name of the headmaster of the most prestigious school for witchcraft and wizardry in the world. Perhaps he and Hagrid should swap names.
I must say that thematically the film did not give me anything new about which to ponder. It contains more or less the same characters, holds aloft the same values, follows the same structure, and reaches the same conclusion with the same triumphs, as all of its peers. Our hero, whom we are almost incapable of disliking, and his quirky sidekicks help him down the path to self-realization and defeat the villain. None of the adults (except one, of course) believe him. But he defies them and is later exalted for showing bravery by doing so.
I will admit that while working within this formula, the film does a fair job of executing it. The art direction is very good - particularly the look of the various dungeon scenes and hidden rooms towards the end of the film - the kids are decent actors ("decent" for ten- to eleven-year-old actors is excellent), and the themes related to the Mirror of Erised (yet another one of spell check's favorite words) are poignant and very relatable. However, considering that he's the alleged villain for much of the film, I would've liked to see more of Alan Rickman, and more of Dumbledore as well. A larger presence for both of them would've provided more balance to the work, and shown more of the world of Hogwarts than just Harry, Ron and Hermione.
The ending seemed a little video-gamey to me, with Harry and the gang making their way through sequential rooms of obstacles. Given the knowledge this is the first in the series, and consequently knowing that the main characters will not die, it was still decently suspenseful, even if it felt a bit packaged for the later-to-be-released video game.
What you ultimately have here is a nice children's film that doesn't really transcend that plane of existence. If I had seen the film when I was twelve, perhaps I would have fallen in love with it, and been impassioned to watch and read on as Harry and his friends grew up with me, as so many of the die-hard Harry Potter fans did. But, seeing it for the first time at the age of twenty-three, there's not much in it for me at this point in my life. Harry Potter is kind of like the tobacco industry; you gotta hook 'em while they're young.
Herein lies my conundrum with the series, though: I'm pretty interested in seeing the two Deathly Hallows films. Harry and the gang are close to adulthood now, and dealing with more grown-up struggles and themes. Also, based on what I've seen in trailers and posters, I really like the cinematography and overall look of the films. But, the question is whether I want to wade through five more children's movies to see one two-part movie for adults. And this doesn't really feel like a series where I can jump films and still follow what's going on; it's not The Land Before Time. I'd be missing important character changes and developments. I'd be missing pretty much their entire adolescence. Can I get by with reading synopses and jump straight to the action, or do I first have to sit through eleven or so hours of teenage drama laced with wands, potions and quidditch? It's a real catch-22.