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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
(Special Widescreen Edition)

review by Zach B.

 

 

Rating: PG (Some Scary Moments and Mild Language)

Running Time: 152 minutes

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Ian Hart, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters

Screenplay by: Steve Kloves
Based on the novel by: J.K. Rowling

Directed by: Chris Columbus

 

Studio: Warner Bros.

Retail Price: $26.99

Features:
Disc 1: Teaser Trailer, Theatrical Trailer,, Cast & Crew

Disc 2: Interviews, Deleted Scenes, Hogwarts Ground, Library, Tours, Sorting Hat, Diagon Alley, Classrooms (all filled with clips, interactive puzzles and Potter stuff for the kiddies!), DVD-ROM: Extra Credit

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, English Subtitles, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selection (35 Scenes), Two Disc Set

Released: May 28th, 2002

 

 

Ah yes, the phenomenon known as "Harry Potter." In truth, what can I say about J.K. Rowling's empire that hasn't already been said and that you muggles don't already know about? Just about everyone loves Harry Potter (except a few religous groups who don't like the idea of children learning about magic and wizardry) and knows all about Harry Potter. The book series that got kids into reading again, the tons of merchandise sitting on store shelves, the money its made and the whole stir its caused... seriously, Harry Potter is one of the greatest success stories of all time and has quickly worked its way into worldwide popular culture. It's become something iconic if you must for so many people. So many just love the world of Harry Potter (and one of the most asked questions you've probably been hearing for the past few months is when the next book is coming out). You see, Harry Potter is not something that's just for kids. Some of you may be surprised how many adult readers are into the series as well. It's really become something so grand and so amazing. The reading aspect. The money aspect. The recongnition. Harry Potter and his Hogwarts cohorts have transcended many barriers and can instantly cause a stir no matter what. Arguably, it's one of the biggest and most easily seen franchises of all time (and it's far from over yet!). All this from a one time struggling single mother on welfare, who wrote her groundbreaking book in a heated cafe because her home wasn't heated...

Naturally, with something as massive as "Harry Potter," a movie (or movie series for that matter) was something you couldn't stop. Probably the real winners from all this is Warner Bros., who bought the rights to make a film version of the first book for a mere $700,000 dollars before Rowling's world became huge (now I'd imagine she could demand millions upon millions). But then Harry Potter caught on tremendously, and Warner realized they had a lot on their hands. Sure, they could put a blank screen up for two hours and many would pay to see it, but it was their job to actual create something out of all this, let alone actually stay true to the book (has Hollywood ever done that before?). Enter the long process they went through.

Warner Bros. held "auditions" for directors to helm the film. Ivan Reitman, Brad Silberling ("City Of Angels") and Steven Spielberg were among some of the candidates. They passed over the inexperienced (Silberling), the cocky (Reitman) and Spielberg dropped the project himself. He wanted to make it CGI, and have Haley Joel Osment as the voice of Potter (and both have remained somewhat bitter about not being in the project to his day). So it seems Warner Bros. was in a slump... but there was someone else who wanted the job. His name? Chris Columbus.

Columbus would make a likely choice. He has worked with child actors before ("Home Alone"), knows how to make a good, crowdpleasing movie ("Home Alone" again), has experienced darker materials (he wrote the original "Gremlins") but most importantly, he was willing to stay faithful to the original text which was something that a lot of people would be happy about (myself included).

Before I divulge into the film and my thoughts a bit more, I think I should stop at this point and actually explain what the first Harry Potter adventure is about. For every five million who know, my theory is that one person doesn't know. In anycase, we have our grand setup in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" where we meet preteen Harry Potter. Harry is living a depressing and sad life with the Dudleys, his uncle, aunt and cousin. They treat him terrible and everything, but perhaps most importantly, they've kept secrets from him. For it's only until his nasty relatives trying to prevent Harry from getting a bunch of letters inviting him to attend Hogwarts, an academy for Wizards, does Harry learn the truth. For you see, Harry is a wizard and his parents were wizards, but he doesn't learn all that until the mysterious strange Hagrid show up to tell him everything and personally give him the news of his Hogwarts acceptance. Yes, all of that has been kept from him.

So Harry ends up leaving his cruel extended family, gets ready for Hogwarts, meets friends, meets allies, meets foes, learns Quidditch, starts a new life, has a great destiny ahead of him, has insecurities because he knows nothing about being a wizard, etc. Just a lot of different things. But the main plot comes in through a magical item called the Sorcerer's Stone, which has its magical powers and You-Know-Who is manipulating to get it. So, it's up to Potter and company to save the day. However, judging from the movie though, it's actually hard to tell what the main plot is since there's so little of it. I think that's the film's greatest flaw (more on that shortly).

Yes, I've read the first Harry Potter book and I really loved it. The film was being massively hyped, and I know that nothing can live up to such major hype (I've been let down before in my life). I saw the film on opening night (a late show to avoid the kiddies), and I must say I did enjoy it. It's a good film that does stay true to the book. It is enjoyable and works for what it is, and I guess that's the important thing. However, in many aspects, I found the film adapation to be somewhat disappointing which sort of dampered things. Basically, I feel the strengths and flaws end up cancelling each other out, only to make for a good, but not spectacular cinematic Potter experience.

Steve Kloves, a filmmaker and writer I greatly respect, adapted the screenplay from Rowling's novel. He does an overall good job here with the script. I appreciated how close Kloves stayed to the book. It's probably one of the most faithful book adapations Hollywood has ever produced. Even though he strays slightly here and there, his dialogue is on par with what you'd expect Rowling to write. The screenplay is rather smooth, and he does a very nice job of shortening some scenes and condensing them so key points about the story and characters get across just as they did in the book.

However, Kloves has seemed to miss a great deal of key points that made the book work so well. My main problems were that Kloves fails to establish some key background information on characters (such as Hagrid), doesn't truly emphasize strong relationships that the book featured which many identified with (Hagrid and Harry for one) and trims or simply cuts down many strong, gripping scenes the book told well (Forbidden Forest and Norbert to name some, but the Norbert one I don't mind so much and was a key cut since it doesn't advance the story too much, not to mention it's a rather long scene). I really don't think it would have hurt anyone to add in a minute or two of extra dialogue. One of my strongest criticisms is that this adapation tells the story in a just manner, but for the extra and key stuff, it's like you're already supposed to know it when you go in and keep it in account. While many people all over the world have read "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," a lot of people haven't. I think the little cuts of dialogue, as little as they are, are actually key to the characters personas and themselves. Hell, we never learn the name of Harry's owl in the movie (it's Hedwig, by the way) but there is a score piece on the soundtrack by the name of "Hedwig's Theme." Kind of makes you think, right?

Or perhaps the main problem with the film is director Chris Columbus. Rumor has it his original cut was well over four hours, and then trimmed to about three (that seems more logical since the DVD has nearly a half-hour of deleted scenes), and then trimmed again to two and a half. Columbus seems to be so wrapped up in creating such a nice, wonderful visual experience that is the world of Harry Potter and transporting us to make us believe that Hogwarts, Diagon Alley and the other locations exist, that he forgets that the original book actually had a plot. The main plot is poorly put together. It's briefly foreshadowed and then at the end of the movie, it all just seems to come together. All of it really lacks the tension and thought the book had, and instead, he casually mentions the Sorcerer's Stone and its hints all until the very end. Yet even there, he cuts down the really strong ending which has shocked many. Instead, he just extends the chess sequence and forgets the other challenges.

I'm not saying the book had a strong emphasis on the whole plot, because it didn't. The plot there and was set up firmly which made the book work. But the first book was introducing us all to the characters, the world, the myth, the conflicts and the magic. Rowling succeeded in that while blending in the plot elements, even if it was all a bit uneven. Again, Columbus really focuses too strongly on setting everything up and forcing the whole world of Potter on the audience. Showing off the sets, the costumes, the designs... it's all too showy. He really wants to rapture us and make us feel part of the world. It is nice, but after a bit, it becomes tiresome as we do get the point on how wonderful everything is. It's just too overwhelming for its own good at times. I think he loses too much focus on the main story and that killed a good deal of the film for me.

Columbus gives a visually pleasing experience, and he has production designer Stuart Craig to thank. Craig works wonders with his vision and really brings the locations to life. More or less everything was similar to what I imagined in the book, as he seems to nail Rowling's wondrous descriptions. I really liked that and it did help. Just as good are the costumes which felt perfectly fit with the characters, the book and the characters in their scenes. It lends a nice feel.

In the end though, what mainly killed the film version of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" for myself was that while watching throughout, I got a strong sense that there was something missing. After thinking pretty long and hard, I finally realized it: warmth. I really got into the first book, and from that opening line all the way until the last word, I felt a giant sense of warmth throughout. It's hard to describe, but I was completely entertained all while feeling this wonderful dose of heart. While watching the movie, I didn't feel much emotional connection and the same kind of wonderment I felt when I first read the book. That really makes it a different experience. I wasn't expecting the movie to capture all of that warmth, but I was hoping for some of it. Instead, there is no real emotional connection and there's some unexciting dullness.

As far as other production aspects, the special effects are hit and miss. They are generally good, but some look incredibly cheesy and corny, let alone are dated. Others, however look state of the art and professional. I'm hoping this will be a bit more balanced in the sequels. With the effects, what ruined something for me was that we saw Voldemort himself (sue me, I said his name). Voldemort was NOTHING like I imagined. And thanks to the movie, everytime I read a Potter book, I'm sure the image of him from the movie is what's going to pop into my mind. But I guess you can't help that... with movies we visualize, with books we imagine. And of course, the two are going to get mixed and ruin things in each experience in one way or another. I guess I prefer my own visualizations of things in the world of Potter than what's in the movie.

On another note, John Williams has written a fantastic score for the film (and I hope he's able to score future installments). Critics bashed his score, and I can't understand why. I loved the music (so much that I bought the soundtrack). It may be typical Williams fare in the sense of his grand orchestrations, but it fits with the film perfectly, and I mean that to a T. He captures the sense of excitment, the sense of wonder and the sense of truth of Rowling's world. He clearly expresses the themes and the characters in the music, which is never an easy task. Everything just fits and blends right in with the movie. Some of his composistions are simple, but each has their own magical charm (no pun intended). The music sounds like magic music in a very pure sense, and Williams has truly written, what I think, one of his best scores ever. I'm quite happy he recieved an Oscar® nomination for it.

Yet what good is a film if the actors can't carry it? Thankfully, Columbus respected Rowling's wishes and headed with a complete British cast. No Americans here, all English (and some Scottish) actors. This really helps the movie as far as feel, and helps it connect with the book. While I would have loved to see more of the adult actors (Richard Harris, Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith steal the show in their moments in their key roles, not to mention Robbie Coltrane who is fantastic as Hagrid, even if he is sadly missing the whole accent that the book featured), we all know it all depends on the child actors. The casting works quite well here, and the kids do carry the film. Daniel Radcliffe, who's only acting experience before was in a BBC production of "David Copperfield" and a brief part in "The Tailor Of Panama" makes a decent Harry Potter. Though at times he seems a bit akward in the role, he is believable and captures his sensibilities. Though newcomers Rupert Grint and Emma Watson make a fine Ron and Hermonie. With their blazing comic timing and great delivery, I feel they carry the movie more than Radcliffe. Still, the acting is something I was really pleased with and just makes the whole experience richer.

Overall, I did enjoy the film adaption of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" but while it does a lot of good and lives up to the book in quite a few ways, I was disappointed in many key omissions and that in some respects it did not live up to the source material. It actually went fast for me in the two hour and a half running time, and I was quite entertained. This is an impressive feat, to cram much of the book in a whole movie and getting a good deal out of it so we don't have to bother reading the book or reading the book again. Still, I do reccomend the book over the movie (another case where the book is better than the cinematic form). I found the book to be more enjoyable, has all the key aspects not in the movie, more entertaining, has a better approach to the story, and of course, captures the warmth which I did not feel throughout the film.

Critics enjoyed this one and so did much of its audience (of course they would!), but in the end, as close as it is to the book and as successful it is in assorted ways, it sadly didn't work as well as I hoped. But that's okay... there are still six other books and most likely another six movies for the franchise. I guess the first film is like an experiment of sorts... the filmmakers were feeling there way around and got somewhere, but still have some ways to fully go. I'm sure things will improve in future installments... things get better in due time, right?

But hey, it doesn't matter what I say. Millions have already seen the movie and loved it, and those same millions are sure to rush out and buy the DVD in eager anticipation. The movie broke box office records grossing over 300 million domestically (and it's approx. 8000 theater opening with 90.3 million was just broken by "Spider-Man" with 114.8 million as I write this) and this DVD is sure to break more records. While they'll still buy the DVD, they should be warned though... it may not be as appealing as one may think.

 

 

Being released in pan and scan and widescreen versions (at least Warner was smart enough to do that without having fans complain and at least acknowledging there are adult fans for the movie), fans can take their pick of their preferred viewing aspect ratio (though we all know the pan and scam will surely outsell the widescreen discs since this is a giant family title). Anyhow, this review focuses on the widescreen version. Presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio (don't complain about those black bars kiddies and get yourself a pan and scan copy) and in anamorphic widescreen, the transfer holds up mostly but I was surprised and disappointed in overall look. It looks good, but like the film itself, it sure has its flaws. The image jumps around tremendously... sometimes it looks great and other times it's a rather underwhelming experience.

I found the night scenes to struggle quite a bit, especially the opening chapter where there's a hazed and incredibly soft look that really overcomes the picture. The film can be quite grainy at times, but at other times, wonderfully sharp and vibrant (I wish the whole film was like this). For the most part, fleshtones are dead on as they really look good, not to mention human and natural. Colors themselves, for the most part, are quite wondrous and vibrant. The wonderful visuals are brought to full life on this transfer. Colors are really well saturated and take full advantage of themselves, as they tend to pop right off the screen. Be it the snow of the Holiday themed scenes, the Hogwarts uniforms, the gritiness of Gringotts bank or the magnificent halls of Hogwarts, the details do shine here and are quite nice to see throughout.

Despite the good, there's still some bad. Marks on the print like blemishes and dirt do pop up rather often, not to mention they are quite visable and get a little annoying time and time again. There's also a surprising amount of noise in this transfer and some halo edges, which I was not fond of either. Edge enhancment is at a minimum, but it's still there which may annoy some home theater enthusiasts. Still, despite these nitpicks and how some scenes look better than others, the transfer here is pretty strong and the end result is quite pleasing.

 

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" boasts an impressive English 5.1 Dolby Digital EX track (the mix in Spanish is also available) that is sure to delight all audiences. This is a very strong and rather creative mix that truly embodies the whole adventure with a lot of power and force to boot. Given the wide array of sounds throughout the movie, it's great that nothing overlaps everything else. So dialogue, sound effects and music are all put together and you can hear each as they were intended. They really are nicely blended in. Dialogue is well recorded, crystal clear and quite solid as very nice to listen to. John Williams's wonderful and pleasing score is like being in heaven in this mix, as it truly captivates when ever it is played since it's strongly mixed throughout the channels quite creatively. And finally, the fury of sound effects (and boy, there sure is a lot of those!). The sound effects pretty much put the "oomph" in this mix and does an excellent job by doing that. Through the "Quidditch" match, the finale, the Hogwarts Express arriving and so much more... the Hogwarts atmosphere is captured in a true, bold sense throughout. Also included are English subtitles, English closed captions, French subtitles and Spanish subtitles.

 

This is where things get interesting, tedious and in a sense, quite mind-boggling. Since "Harry Potter" is a property that does retain adult fans, a majority of its audience is children. Considering that and how popular the movie was with kids, the producers of this DVD seemed to try and create something that would appeal to their key demographic. Even though the Harry Potter series has its hardcore fans of adults, the supplements here are mainly designed to please kids. I think that's a wise choice, but some older fans are sure to be disappointed with the majority of features here, though maybe they'll like a thing or two...

But, perhaps, what annoyed me and frusturated me most about this DVD set is HOW the supplements are offered. Again, since this is aimed for kids, the whole idea is to make this "experience" along the lines of "fun." I can see what Warner Bros. and the producers were trying to do, and in many ways, they do succeed. They more or less embody the Potter experience through the second disc where they create their own world of Harry Potter through film clips, interactive menus, puzzles and more. The puzzles here really fit in the theme with the book and movie, while the menu designs are really well done, pretty to look at and all on both discs (I really enjoyed how colorful and thematic they were, in a way, you felt like you were embodying the Potter adventure for some brief moments). The menus on the second disc are also all pretty interactive and just fit in with the whole style of the story, which is quite nice and I did appreciate. I'm sure kids will be excited about that even more as they recognize going through the halls of Hogwarts and the key shops of Diagon Alley. This is very appealing for that age group. I'm also sure kids will enjoy going through the puzzles and enjoy solving them... the first few times.

Being an older watcher, I personally found going through all the supplements a bit frusturating at times. There actually isn't a giant amount of supplements offered, but going through all the menus and puzzles, you'd think there would be more. Yes, you can obtain a lot of clues and hints throughout exploring, but if you know the movie, you should be fine in gathering everything (just follow things in order). However, there is actually some stuff that was omitted in the movie that does appear in the menus (use of logic, for one). Again, you can find the hints and all and you probably will need them, unless you're a die hard Potter fan and know the book well too.

But that's not even it. It's decent trying to find the supplements and explore the disc at least once... but every single time you want to put in disc two!? That's just crazy. That means every time you turn on you DVD player and put disc two in, you have to go through all those tiresome and annoying steps again! Be granted, once you know what to click it's a bit easier to do it all over again, but still! You have to go through a lot and mirror Harry's own adventure before getting to the supplements each and every time (though once you know the titles, you can cheat I suppose... but honestly, are all kids familiar with the title function and really want to have a pen and paper out while watching to copy down which title goes to what?)... it's really downright annoying and frusturating. Why didn't they bother to include a little menu that gives you direct access to the supplements? Would that really be so bad or hard? I'm sure some kids after a try or two won't even want to explore the puzzles to go access everything again. I'm sure some kids will be frustuarted if they can't get something be it they have no idea or their player has problems working the disc and that they require assistance from older siblings or loved ones. Perhaps what boggles me the most is this: Has Warner forgotten who the target audience is for this DVD overall? That is the greatest irony here. A DVD set designed for children that is meant to be fun, but in the end, will probably only frusturate them after they realize that they must go through the supplements over and over only to have the strongest desire to break the second disc in half. If I got frusturated going through the supplements (especially when you make a wrong move and have to repeat steps over and over!), then there is no doubt that a lot of kids are going to feel the same way too (and then the hard realization of every single time, you have to go through the puzzles). I imagine Warner is going to get a lot of calls about player incompatabilities and questions to getting to the supplements (not to mention parents screaming with their children crying in the background). My advice for them is that they should set up an FAQ page. Somehow, I have a feeling that won't be happening quite soon.

So enough of my bitching of how cumbersome that process is, let's get down to the supplements themselves. So disc two... I guess the easiest thing to access (thank the Lord) are the Interviews. Just click down on the first screen and you should see them. It has clips from the movie along with interviews from director Chris Columbus, producer David Heyman (who says Harry is a poor student, but if I recall the first book correctly, he did well before going to Hogwarts), screenwriter Steve Kloves, production designer Stuart Craig and that's about it. This is fairly straightforward stuff here, and it has some behind the scenes footage. Basically, the filmmakers talk about adapting the book, the challanges they faced and the eventual outcome of what they were doing. Overall, it's not too long (about sixteen minutes) but it's solid stuff.

Sorting Hat pretty much describes the four different houses of the series, while going to Hogwarts Grounds you can tour Hagrid's Hut and learn about Hagrid related stuff there, learn about Quidditch, try to catch the Golden Snitch (and learn more about the wizard sport) and find/watch a multilanguage clip. I guess some of the stuff here is really for Potter newbies...

In the Library you can click several different books to get some clues on how to access those deleted scenes (more on that in a bit), some video profiles of the characters which is just montages of key clips from the films of that character, stuff on the ghosts and a decent still gallery. Oh, and there's some Tours of key Potter places. The DVD-ROM version seems to be better, but like the Hagrid's Hut tour, it's the same deal. Just click the arrows around. You can check out Gryffindor Common, Great Hall and Harry's Room.

In Diagon Alley you get to collect your wand, see owls and collect your fortune at Gringotts. The stuff here is key to collect to access the Classrooms, where you can see more clips, have more puzzles and explore more interactive stuff. Like some other stuff, it explains more about the Potter universe... kids may enjoy watching this stuff, but they really know all about it probably. Still, you can check out stuff in "Transfiguration," "Defense Against The Dark Arts," "Potions" and "Spells &Charms."

From the classrooms you can access the Deleted Scenes. It got a little frusturating for me to go through everything like finding the right key, the potion... but I eventually got it. Still, to do this EVERY single time you want to watch these scenes does get old fast and quite annoying. I bet kids will get sick of it quickly, even if it does become second nature. The scenes themselves are very good though, and are mostly extensions and total nearly 26 minutes. They're in two channel sound and anamorphic widescreen. Enjoy...

Extra Credit is stuff for your DVD-ROM drive, and for that matter, there's a load of stuff. There's some really neat 3-D tours of key Potter places, weblinks (gotta advertise, of course!) to current and future Potter materials, game demos, screensavers, a cool interface and One Voice Technology, where the DVD will learn your voice and you can guide yourself through the stuff if you have a microphone. Pretty nifty if you like that.

Finally, on the first disc, you can find the original Theatrical Teaser and Theatrical Trailer in two channel sound and anamorphic widescreen, followed by a mere Cast and Crew listing (can't Warner do biographies ever?)

As you can see here, the extras here are really in theme with the story and when the kiddies get to them, they should enjoy most of them. However, that leaves the adult fans disappointed (and even though there are a majority of children who are fans of the story, a lot of adults can't resisit it either). I'm sure they'll think the interviews are a decent watch and will enjoy the deleted scenes, but with everything else, that's it. Again, I know Warner was aiming to make this a kids title, but couldn't they have added some more supplements to please everyone given the appeal of this recognizable brand name? When it's all said and done, this really is a kiddie title without much fanfare for older viewers to enjoy. And given the film's popularity and how much was done with it, there could have been a ton here. Who knows how involved the filmmakers actually did want to get, but I would have loved more behind the scenes footage, featurettes on creating the score, effects and the production design. And if it's not asking for much, how about a cast commentary, a Columbus commentary, an isolated score or even a commentary from J.K. Rowling herself discussing her creation, her thoughts on the film and everything else? We can all dream, can't we?

 

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is a fairly straightforward, though flawed adaption of a great fantasy novel (and moneymaking franchise) that is pretty enjoyable to watch. This DVD is going to be a giant seller no matter what, so I can complain and complain about this disc and Warner will still be raking in the moneybags. Yes, the supplements here are aimed right at the target audience, so the kids will surely enjoy what is offered. Everyone else may not be as pleased. As far as the disc's presentation, it's very good overall, but I found the image to be disappointing and for a 5.1 EX track, I thought there could have been even more activity. No matter though, most fans in the end should like this two disc set and again, no matter what I say, it's still going to smash video sales and rental records. I just hope for the future Potter movies Warner listens to all these criticisms and makes a different, more in-depth and easier experience. Hey, the DVD release of "Harry Potter and the Chamber Of Secrets" should only be about a year away as I write this. And also, I wouldn't mind if Warner chose to revisit this title in the future (I reccomend they do. And besides, they'll get even more profits from a re-release!).