Our review of Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone: Ultimate Edition (Blu-Ray), published December 8th, 2009, is also available.
Let the magic begin!
As the world eagerly awaits the long-delayed fifth book of the Harry Potter saga, the time passes a little bit quicker with the arrival of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to DVD. While the movie is as fun on disc as it was in the theaters, the extra content is a severe disappointment.
Facts of the Case
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) became famous at a very tender age when the evil Lord Voldemort killed his parents. Not only did Harry survive, but also something about the baby Potter caused Voldemort's power to rebound against the wizard, effectively banishing him from the world. However, with Voldemort gone but not dead, and his followers in hiding, the great wizard Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris) knows that Harry must be hidden. So, for his own good, he places baby Harry with Harry's Muggle (non-magical) relatives, Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) and Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw), and their equally disagreeable son Dudley (Harry Melling).
Growing up ignorant of his true nature, Harry is utterly shocked when in spectacular fashion he learns that he is a wizard and he is to be enrolled at the famous Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In a whirlwind of activity, Harry is whisked away from his dull, tortured life, beginning with a visit from Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Hogwarts groundskeeper, a shopping trip through Diagon Alley, and beyond as he begins life as a first-year student. All sorts of new and amazing experiences await, including new friends Hermoine Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), his teachers, including Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), and Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, and even games of Quidditch!
Before too long, Harry realizes that there is a mystery at Hogwarts surrounding an ancient artifact called the Sorcerer's Stone. Powerful forces are protecting it from equally powerful forces that seek to obtain it. Together with his friends, Harry will discover what the Sorcerer's Stone is, what evil wizard will do anything to recover it, and what it has to with Lord Voldemort and the famous scar on Potter's forehead.
Who in their right mind would want to adapt Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone? As the first book of four in print (out of a planned series of seven) which have sold well over 100 million copies in 47 languages, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone has spawned a publishing colossus and a vast merchandising machine on its way towards making J. K. Rowling the world's first billionaire author. Generating this enormous profit are the legion of millions upon millions of devoted fans, ostensibly children but including increasing numbers of adults as the books become longer, darker, and more intense.
As with any detailed fantasy world, the adherents of the Harry Potter universe have created in their mind's eye the characters, the locations, the crucial events, and the swarms of tiny details that come and go through the stories. Against this backdrop, perhaps you can begin to imagine the daunting task facing anyone who desired to adapt the book to film. Any deviation from the perceived Potter orthodoxy is liable to bring down the wrath of hordes of fans, but on a more prosaic level, how could any filmed version of the book compete with the expectations and mental canvas painted since 1998 when it was first published, changes or no? Impossibly high expectations can be a terrible burden for a film, for no matter how good the ingredients are, the end result will always be found wanting. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace comes to mind here, for even if its evident flaws were remedied, that film would never have measured up to the nostalgic magic memories that the original Star Wars trilogy inspired. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone suffers from a similar disadvantage, as even the best production cannot match the vividness of our own imaginations.
Oddly enough, the most consistent criticism leveled against Chris Columbus' vision for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is of a different sort, namely too slavish a devotion to the book and too little of his own creative input. Some may find that to be a cardinal sin of filmmaking, but perhaps only for the rarefied taste of cinephiles. As long as the story is entertaining and the presentation first-rate, does it really matter? Frankly, as a fan of the book, I am heartily pleased that for once, a Hollywood director took a well-written book and had the ego restraint not to alter the story just to put his own fingerprints on it. Like a gourmet chef well aware of the quality of his raw ingredients, Chris Columbus (Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) presents the book simply and forthrightly, using a faithful script by Steven Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys, Wonder Boys) and the tools of modern cinematic wizardry to match J. K. Rowling's prose. Some scenes may not be quite as detailed as in the book, but given the already significant cost and length of the film, I'm not too inclined to quibble.
For the filmed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone as with the book, J. K. Rowling has created places and people in a parallel magical existence, yet ones that we can still identify with in our own mundane world. Children are still children at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The ever eager, supremely smart know it all, the class clown, the bully, the sports hero, all of these most of us encountered as we moved though our youth. Details and context may differ, but the common experience of humanity perseveres. The adults, magical and Muggles alike, are similarly familiar to us. In laying the groundwork for the stories to follow, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone tells a charming, uncomplicated tale, with moments of triumph, sorrow, courage, exhilaration, and drama sufficient to keep both child and adult audiences' attentions from beginning to end. All in all, this is a wonderful exercise of make-believe and imagination for the entire family.
The cast of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone features some of the brightest talent from across the Atlantic, including the irascible Richard Harris (A Man Called Horse, Patriot Games, Unforgiven), two-time Oscar winner Maggie Smith (Murder By Death, California Suite, Richard III (1995)), the eternally cheerful Robbie Coltrane (Henry V (1989), Cracker, The World Is Not Enough), John Hurt (Midnight Express, Rob Roy, Contact) (in a small role as wand maker Mr. Ollivander), the Minister of Silly Walks John Cleese (Monty Python And The Holy Grail, A Fish Called Wanda, Silverado), and the deliciously sinister Alan Rickman (Die Hard, Michael Collins, Galaxy Quest). While it is true that none of the adult actors has a generous amount of screen time, with a galaxy of stars this luminous, we need only enjoy the combined light of their presence.
Thus, the weight of the acting chores falls upon the main trio of young actors, Daniel Radcliffe (Tailor of Panama), Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint. In a resounding tribute to the casting gurus of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, all of these young actors come up golden in their first major film. Their performances are restrained, but still reminiscent of genuine children, and successfully avoid distracting pouting, mugging, or boredom. George Lucas should have had such luck with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
The anamorphic video is good, but far from the best. The opening scene, dimly lit with plentiful mist, is not handled very well. The mist takes on a grainy, almost blotchy look, and the black night has a tinge of gray. In the later scenes, the picture settles down, but the excessive softness and bouts of edge enhancement artifacting take the transfer quality down a peg or two.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is quite good. The playful score, by John Williams (Star Wars, Airplane!, Jurassic Park), flows across the front speakers in pleasing fashion. All speakers get a workout, with the rear surrounds kicking in for a credible immersive effect, from time to time. There is enough action, subwoofer kick, and panning effects (particularly in the "flood of letters" scene and the Quidditch game) to satisfy adults and kids alike.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When a studio goes to the trouble of a two-disc special edition, you would expect that with a whole disc to fill that the extra content would be worthy of the expense and effort. After wading through the second disc, I began to wonder why they bothered to include it. While I understand the point of including a wealth of extra content that is primarily directed to the younger fans of the Harry Potter series, I cannot understand how Warner could make the decision to ignore the parents, movie collectors, and adult fans by the near omission of more traditional DVD extras. All the grown-ups get are the usual teaser and theatrical trailers, a fifteen-minute featurette and seven deleted scenes.
Even here there are problems, because while the featurette provides a glimpse behind the scenes of the production (primarily through interviews with director Chris Columbus, producer David Heyman, and screenwriter Steven Kloves) it only begins to scratch the surface of what is wanted. How about a commentary track, special effects featurettes, production and design information, storyboards and photo galleries, outtakes, more trailers, a bigger tease for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and any other number of possibilities? The seven deleted scenes, though of high visual quality, are only accessible after a fair amount of Easter egg hunting that kids may enjoy but adults will find at least mildly frustrating. This modest payoff is made more galling by the press reports of a rough cut of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone that ran in the neighborhood of four hours. Heck, it sounds like there could be disc of deleted scenes alone, or at least a featurette devoted to editing and deleted scenes. I only hope that there is not going to be a three or four disc Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in the near future, because then there will be a mob of customers rightfully angry at the double-dip, particularly given the flaws of this version.
For the kids, there are tours of locations in and near Hogwarts, a screensaver, a computerized "Remembrall" reminder application, web links to exclusive online events and content, demos for several Harry Potter-related games, collectible trading cards, and other minor miscellaneous content. I am sure a lot of effort went into creating all of these features, but I wonder how many kids will bother to play with each of them at least once.
I usually don't comment on the packaging these days, but the custom packaging Warner uses for this disc is perhaps less suitable than the hated snapper case (if you can believe that). Using a two disc folding cardboard case inside a cardboard sleeve does not bode well for the long-term durability of the package. Even with careful, non-kid handling of the set, I already see some visible wear and tear and the flap of proofs of purchase tends to get caught between the leaves of the case. At the very least, coated, heaver stock would seem to be in order (as is done for the X-Files season sets). However, I pray for the day that Warner gives in and uses keep cases.
A must-purchase for fans of the book, I offer a qualified recommendation to buy Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone ($26.99 retail) for the rest of you. If you can get a good price, buy it, but Warner has made it an overpriced one disc edition masquerading as a two disc set. This makes a good family film, but even the single and childless among you should give it at least a rental. If you're in the mood for light, charming fantasy, this is for you.
This Muggle has no quarrel with finding Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone not guilty. Warner, on the other hand, needs to go back to school to learn to do a proper two disc special edition.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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