Word to the wise: start chanting, "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," and Chris C. will probably deck you. (We're guessing he got a lot of grief about his name in school.)
He Ain't A Genius…And That's Why He's So Great
You won't hear Chris Columbus's name in the hallowed halls of academia a lot. He specializes in crowd-pleasers, not cinematic ground-breakers, and his work reflects filmmaking as a craft more than an art. This is a fancy way of saying that he makes good movies, not great ones. His work on Harry Potter enjoys more of a boost from the source novel than from any of his artistic flourishes. (Source)
And frankly, that's kind of the point. The Harry Potter films were intended to reflect the vision of author J.K. Rowling, and cinema's true shining lights—the Spielbergs and the Tarantinos—would want to add their own creative flair on top of hers. That simply wouldn't do.
Enter Columbus, who had worked in the Hollywood system for a long time and knew how to direct a popular movie. He started out as a screenwriter, penning the scripts for Gremlins, The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes, among other totally tubular 80s fare.
That led him to directing, in which he delivered a number of big hits (both good and bad). Their ranks include the likes of Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, Nine Months and Bicentennial Man…again, not enough to get the Oscars to take notice, but basically not too shabby.
And that "not too shabby"-ness is, ironically, what makes him a perfect director to introduce the world to The Boy Who Lived. The cinematic powers-that-be needed a guy who could deliver Harry Potter with no muss, no fuss.
Clean, Clear, And Kiddo-Friendly
Why? For starters, Hollywood had seven more Harry Potter movies to get through. Things needed to be set up in a clean, clear way. A director with a stronger voice might have started adding flourishes and curly-cues in ways that would distract viewers from the information delivery system that this film needs to be—and confusing newcomers is no kind of good, especially when they can't tell a Muggle from a mountain troll.
Columbus, on the other hand, knows how to give us exposition and valuable information in interesting ways…while making sure that everything makes perfect sense. With his work in place, the saga can unfold without anyone getting confuzzled. He gets the heavy lifting done now, so later movies don't have to.
Then there's the question of kids. This movie has a lot of child actors…and we mean a lot. That requires a director who knows a) how to work with kids b) get good performances out of them, and c) isn't going to introduce them to the local drug dealer or work them to death and then toss them aside.
And C.C. is the man when it comes to working with small fry. He has a reputation for responsibility, and he and the film's producers set up a school on-set so their actors could study and stay in class while they worked on the film.
And, from a creative perspective, he knows how get a good performance out of the wee ones. He'd already made Macaulay Culkin a big star with Home Alone, and handled Robin Williams' extended brood in Mrs. Doubtfire. The guy knew what he was doing…and considering that Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson have all gone on to successful adult acting careers, we think he did a-okay.
Finally, there are the visual effects. Effects-heavy movies can demand a lot, but with Bicentennial Man, Columbus proved he had the chops to merge human performances and practical sets with big-time special effects.
Add that to the magic touch with the kiddies and a willingness to set his own vision aside for Rowling's, and you couldn't have asked for a better choice to establish the Harry Potter saga.