Warner Bros. // 2001 // 159 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // December 8th, 2009
Let the magic begin.
Warner Bros. dips into their lucrative Harry Potter franchise once again by finally releasing definitive "ultimate edition" Blu-rays of each film. The series kicks off with the first of the Potter films, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Will this really be the definitive release, or can we expect more Potter down the pike?
Meet Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe, The Tailor of Panama), a young, bespectacled British boy with a curious scar on his head. Miserable with his adoptive foster family (Harry is an orphan), he's one day elated to learn that he's been recruited to study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry, it seems, is a wizard -- the son of two powerful and well-respected wizards. At Hogwarts, he befriends redheaded Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint, Driving Lessons) and priggish Hermione Granger (Emma Watson, Ballet Shoes), and the three of them set out to protect the mysterious Sorcerer's Stone, rumored to help bring about the return of the Dark Lord Voldemort.
Full disclosure: I've never read one of J.K. Rowling's insanely popular Harry Potter books. I know they're supposed to be great and they're not just for kids and they read really quickly. I've heard all the arguments. And I haven't avoided reading them on purpose, nor am I resisting them for any particular reason. I just haven't read them. No malice. No superiority. Just haven't done it. So before I get a bunch of emails or comments claiming that "the books are better than the movies" (as is so often the case), keep in mind that such arguments will get you nowhere. For the purposes of this review, I'm only interested in talking about the movies.
Having said all that, I hope that I can still be considered credible when I say that I genuinely love the Harry Potter film series, and that the first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, still ranks among my favorites. Though lacking the stylistic flourishes of Alfonso Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban or the darker, deeper themes of later entries like Mike Newell's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, there's something charming about director Chris Columbus' workmanlike approach to the first in the Potter series. It's obviously the most kid-friendly movie in the series. While future installments would tackle dark destiny and romantic angst and even the tragedy of death, Sorcerer's Stone is all about how magic is cool and isn't it fun to be a wizard? There's an innocence and sense of fun that the films would never regain (by design), making this one of the most unabashedly entertaining films in a very good series.
I know Chris Columbus gets knocked quite a bit for the very literal translative approach he took with Sorcerer's Stone, but to tear him down is to overlook the many important contributions he made to the series. It's Columbus, after all, who cast all of the key roles, from Harry, Hermione and Ron to Alan Rickman as Snape and Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid. It's Columbus who established the look of Hogwarts (though it would change somewhat over the years, you'll learn in the bonus features) and the overall aesthetic of the Harry Potter series. Future directors would mess around with that -- most notably Alfonso Cuaron and David Yates -- but they're riffing on the groundwork that Columbus laid. With Sorcerer's Stone, he created the rare "event" film that actually feels like an event, but never lost sight of what makes the movie -- and the series as a whole -- work: the three young leads. The series has always been about three young friends trying to deal with situations and powers well outside of their age and maturity. Columbus, who's well-versed in the children's film, really makes this work from the perspective of Harry, Hermione and Ron, and that's not an easy thing to do with a billion-dollar franchise. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is populist entertainment, to be sure, but in the best sense: it's fun for everyone without pandering to the lowest denominator. It set a standard for excellence that every subsequent Potter film would do its darndest to meet or exceed.
The Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Ultimate Edition Blu-ray set comes in a heavy-duty, book-like four-disc set from Warner Bros. The 1080p transfer retains the film's 2.40:1 aspect ratio and looks terrific; offering loads of impressive detail, solid colors and strong, shadowy blacks. Though not necessarily an upgrade over previous HD releases of the film, this Sorcerer's Stone looks great on Blu-ray. The audio options are equally thrilling: great low-end effects (particularly in the film's second half when the kids encounter some of Hogwarts' more dangerous inhabitants) and a good deal of dimensionality. The first Quidditch game of the series is a standout (though its effects look really dated, as do many of the effects in the eight-year old film). The theatrical version of the film offers a six-channel DTS-HD track, while the extended cut only offers a five-channel option. There's not a significant difference between the two (and many home viewers may not yet have the capabilities to play six channels), but just know that you'll have to sacrifice one channel of audio if you're going to watch the extended cut. Luckily, you really won't miss it.
The big attraction with the Ultimate Edition is the bounty of special features. On the first disc, you'll find two versions of Sorcerer's Stone: the original theatrical cut and an "extended" cut that runs seven minutes longer. The extended version adds little bits of character business here and there, but never affects the plot and has little effect on the pacing (though it does hold up Harry arriving at Hogwarts a bit). As such, there's little to recommend this version outside of its novelty and, truth be told, the theatrical version plays better. You can watch the theatrical cut (not the extended one) with the "In-Movie Experience" option, which is basically a picture-in-picture commentary with director Chris Columbus and various storyboards and production art popping up from time to time. It's reasonably interesting and Columbus is an energetic, enthusiastic speaker, but there are long gaps where only the movie is playing. Overall, it's an interesting but inessential addition to the collection.
The second disc contains the Ultimate Edition's best extra: an hour-long documentary on the making of the entire Harry Potter series. A new installment will appear on each of these sets, each exploring a different aspect of the series' production and adding up to a comprehensive, expansive making-of piece. Though not every documentary will coincide directly with the film it appears with, in the case of Sorcerer's Stone it actually does; that's because the first installment of the documentary, "Creating the World of Harry Potter, Part 1: The Magic Begins," deals with the formation of the franchise from casting to set design and more. It's a really neat piece, filled with fun tidbits (Columbus, in trying to make star Emma Watson resemble Hermione as described by Rowling more closely, had her wear a set of false teeth at first but scrapped the idea when he realized it wouldn't work) and explanations of where the film deviates from the books and why (though the Hogwarts students don't wear uniforms in the books, Columbus and his costume designer opted for them because they looked better on film). It's a terrific piece, and definitely leaves you wanting more -- but for that you'll have to pick up the rest of the Ultimate Edition sets. Disc Two also comes with a short, breathless introduction from star Daniel Radcliffe, as well as the 2001 TV special A Glimpse Into the World of Harry Potter. Rounding out the features on the second disc are seven deleted scenes (the same ones found on previous releases) and a large collection of trailers and promotional material for the first film.
The third disc -- a standard def DVD -- contains all of the bonus features originally appearing on the Sorcerer's Stone DVD back in 2002. The overall design of the disc is geared towards kids, as the whole thing plays like a game; you need to take certain directions and pick up items and clues to unlock the special features. Once you do, you'll get basic production featurettes like "Capturing the Stone," comprised of interviews with the creative team, a collection of deleted scenes (the EXACT SAME ones as featured on the second disc, where you don't have to bend over backwards just to find them), character profiles, conceptual artwork and a clip of the film translated into different languages. You can also take a 3-D tour of Hogwarts. This is a strange collection of features, as I can see younger viewers having fun playing the games but not really being interested in the production materials; adults, on the other hand, may want to check out the features but may quickly lose patience in the steps required to view them all.
A fourth disc, located in the cardboard envelope that also houses two trading cards, contains a digital copy of the film. Additionally, the set comes bundled with a 48-page hardcover book full of pictures and artwork (mostly focused on the sets) from all of the Potter movies thus far. All in all, it's a really nice package that's been put together primarily for the most devoted fans of the series.
As much as I wanted the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Ultimate Edition set to redefine the way I watch the movie -- in much the same way as New Line's extended cuts of the Lord of the Rings trilogy did -- that's just not the case. The "extended cut," which was really the draw of the disc for me, runs only seven minutes longer and changes very little about the film; it's more a novelty than anything else, and isn't the version of the movie I'll be returning to in the future. The new hour-long documentary is great, but the majority of the extras are the same ones found on previous releases, and the elaborate hoops you have to jump through to unlock many of them is too much of a chore. Finally -- and this is a small complaint that may seem petty to some -- the box is really big. It looks great and is quite nicely done, but it's enormous; when you consider that there will be eight of these when all is said and done (future "ultimate editions" are advertised in this set as "coming soon"), that's a whole lot of shelf space taken up. The bulk of the box is comprised of collectible items like a hardcover book and trading cards; the die-hard Potter fans may eat this stuff up, but someone like me is just interested in the movies and the extras. Plus, at $35-$40 a pop, you're talking about hundreds of dollars to complete the set.
If you're a huuuge Harry Potter fan and don't already own the films in hi-def, then the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Ultimate Edition is probably a no-brainer. More casual fans may not be so inclined to make the investment (once you pick up the Ultimate Edition for one title, you're pretty much locked into picking them all up -- otherwise, they won't all match on the shelf and then how would you sleep at night?). I'm glad these sets are available as options for the series' biggest fans, but you may want to give it some thought before you upgrade your previous BD versions of the movies. It's a great set, but the movies themselves are likely to be enough.
Review content copyright © 2009 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 6.1 Master Audio (English, Theatrical)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English, Extended)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (Spanish, Theatrical)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish, Extended)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 159 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Theatrical and Extended Versions
* In-Movie Experience
* Screen Tests
* Image Galleries
* Collectible Book
* Digital Copy
* Harry Potter Fan Zone
* Video: The Magic Begins
* Video: The Magic Begins 2