Ty Burr describes the many dangers of hiring the ''Home Alone'' director

By Ty Burr
Updated March 29, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Why the ”Harry Potter” movie is at risk

The blandification of good, cool pop-culture funkiness continues apace.

The rumor zipped around Hollywood earlier this week, so prevalent that most people are accepting it as fact: In the wake of Steven Spielberg declining to steer the big-screen version of ”Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” Warner Brothers has tapped Chris Columbus as director.

All together now: Augggghhhh!

Granted, Spielberg is the reigning wizard of filmmaking, but in his absence, couldn’t they have chosen someone who wasn’t such a… muggle? Columbus’ filmography is studded with big, fat, toothless hits: ”Home Alone” and its sequel, ”Mrs. Doubtfire,” ”Nine Months,” ”Bicentennial Man” — all of them (except the last) broad-appeal moneymakers, and all them (including the last) sentimental, fraudulent slabs of five-ton vanilla custard. His one decent movie as a director was 1991’s ”Only the Lonely,” which at least felt honestly sentimental in its depiction of the bonds between mama’s boy John Candy and dragon mom Maureen O’Hara. (And his one good movie as a writer, 1984’s ”Gremlins,” had a baroque nastiness that may yet serve ”Potter” well.)

Still, this is the guy to bring the dark joys of J.K. Rowling’s books to the screen? To plunge head-on into the cobwebby mythology that millions of kids (and two millions of their parents) know by heart? I can see it now: The Quidditch matches will be state of the art F/X extravaganzas. Hogwarts School will be a triumph of Hollywood production design. The Celine Dion/Ricky Martin duet over the closing credits will go platinum. And little of the book’s nagging doubts and flithery, oddball wit will remain.

All right, I’m reviewing the movie before it’s even been made. But based on this director’s past work, can you blame me for being worried? It’s not like they couldn’t have found a filmmaker more in touch with the spirit of ”Harry Potter” — Tim Burton’s the obvious choice, but what about Danny DeVito (he did well by Roald Dahl’s ”Matilda”), or George ”Babe” Miller, or any number of up-and-coming talents who aren’t committed to placating audiences at all costs? What the studio seems to have forgotten is that ”Harry Potter” represents the rare example of outsider art that becomes hugely popular — in no small part because it speaks to the outsider in anyone who reads it. So why would anyone in his right mind hire the ultimate insider to make the movie?