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Columbus finds a wonderful world

Monday, October 22, 2001

By Milan Paurich
It's Harry Potter's world, and the rest of us are just living in it.
Someone who's been cohabiting quite nicely in J.K. Rowling's imaginary universe for the past two years is Champion native Chris Columbus.
Since beating out such directing heavyweights as Terry Gilliam and Steven Spielberg for the plum assignment of bringing the first of Rowling's "Harry Potter" books to the screen, Columbus has seen his Tinseltown stock rise immeasurably. A career that was teetering on oblivion after 1999's costly flop "Bicentennial Man" is now enjoying a Lazarus-like resurrection.
Great expectations: AOL Time-Warner CEO Gerald Levin has already predicted that his company's percolating "Potter" franchise will ultimately be "bigger than 'Star Wars.'" And who can blame him? Certainly no movie in recent history -- including George Lucas' "Star Wars" prequel "The Phantom Menace" -- has had audiences champing at the bit with such keen anticipation.
In an unprecedented move, Warner Bros. plans to open the $125-million "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" on Friday on 4,000-plus screens nationally, and eventually in 130 foreign countries, in 40 languages. A sequel, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," has already started production (with Columbus once again sitting in the director's chair), with a third in the planning stages.
Yes, Rowling's "Potter" books have sold an astronomical number of copies across the globe, but what explains the relentless media blitzkrieg preceding this movie's release? Every magazine from Entertainment Weekly to Time to TV Guide has squandered forests of paper on the "Potter" phenomenon, making the film a virtual lock to be the box-office champion of the year.
The only questions that remain to be answered are: Just how big will it be? ($300 million? $400 million? Higher?), and what happens to the "Potter" kids (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint) once they reach puberty?
Will the roles of Harry, Hermione and Ronald be recast Menudo-fashion as the original actors grow into adolescence and, eek, adulthood?
On the rise: We can hope the "Potter" movies will finally allow Columbus to be his own man without the big-brother shadows of Spielberg (producer of such early Columbus-penned hits as "Gremlins" and "The Goonies") and John Hughes (producer and screenwriter of Columbus' box-office behemoths "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire") looming over him. But does this new job security come with a price?
Is "Potter" forever destined to be identified as Rowling's baby, not Columbus'? And just how long will Columbus be able to maintain interest in the series before getting bored and moving on to new and potentially dangerous turf?
Since all of Columbus' previous forays into grown-up material ("Nine Months," "Stepmom," etc.) have proven unsuccessful, it's probably good that he's been so adept at directing juvenile performers like Macaulay Culkin.
Those successes have allowed the failures to slide almost unnoticed from his Teflon-coated r & eacute;sum & eacute;.
Maybe "Harry Potter" is the Mount Everest Columbus has been waiting to scale since graduating from Warren J.F.K. High School in 1976. And like Everest, once you reach the peak, it's best not to look down.
For the time being, though, Columbus is perched comfortably at the top of the world. James Cameron of "Titanic" should take note.