For years, the Wife-O-Meter has shown her annoyance about the versions of the "Potter" movies she sometimes runs across while casually channel surfing through cable TV, because she says they are longer than the versions we have on disc, with additional scenes she enjoys. The first time she complained of this, I asked her to call me if she saw a scene that wasn't in our sets. She did, and she was right, after I put the appropriate disc on and found the scene missing. Now, Warner Bros. have rectified the situation with the first of their series of "Ultimate Editions," which include both the theatrical and extended versions of the "Potter" movies. In the case of the first box set, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," it includes the regular edition at 152 minutes and the extended cut at 159 minutes.
This initial installment in the "Potter" movie saga from 2001, reviewed here on Blu-ray, may not look as sharply defined in high def as subsequent episodes, but it is still plenty good, and in addition to the two cuts of the film, the movie comes with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that's better than ever. Add in a slew of bonus goodies, and the set establishes a high standard for the rest of the "Ultimate Editions" to follow.
Wizards, giants, dragons, trolls, goblins, monsters, castles, hidden passageways, magic wands, flying broomsticks, and humorous names. How could the J.K. Rowling's fantasy-adventure novels not fail to catch the public eye, first among its intended audience, children, and then among grown-ups. The question is why director Chris Columbus ("Home Alone," "Mrs. Doubtfire") couldn't quite make the film version of this first book truly fly. It's certainly an entertaining and recommendable film, but it never soars to the heights of filmmaking or imagination the way I had hoped it might.
I have a few answers right off the Quidditch bat, so to speak. First, the author never meant the book primarily for adults, but it is adults who are doing the reviewing and criticizing. Seems a little unfair. Second, in another of Hollywood's monumental coincidences and after a drought of good fantasy films, the initial "Potter" movie arrived only a month or so ahead of another highly anticipated fantasy adventure, the opening installment of "The Lord of the Rings." Comparisons were inevitable, mostly to "Potter's" disadvantage. After all, J.R.R. Tolkien, an Oxford professor of medieval literature, aimed his "Ring" trilogy squarely at adults, writing in an eloquently poetic style, with intricately developed characters, and an epic landscape. It was no wonder the film version of his work would succeed on a more mature and elaborate scale. Ms. Rowling's relatively simple, straightforward prose is fun and easy to read but no match for Tolkien's lyricism. Third, in an effort to satisfy its legion of fans, Columbus attempted to put almost everything in the book into the movie, and it's clear that not every book translates well to the screen on a word-for-word basis. In fact, the "Potter" film outlasts its welcome by a good thirty minutes or more, becoming tiresome to this reviewer shortly after the two-hour mark. Heck, most of this initial outing is exposition--character and setting introductions--and the actual plot doesn't even kick in until the last third of a very long, 152-minute film.
Now, for the sake of those few readers who might still be wondering what all the fuss is about in the first place, let me tell you that the story is a fantasy about a boy who discovers a world filled with magic and that he, much to his surprise, is a major player in it. The boy is Harry Potter, the son of a pair of good wizards murdered by an evil wizard when Harry was but a babe. The child's friends then placed him in the keeping of a pair of non-magical humans (or Muggles as they refer to us mere mortals), who raise Harry in a cupboard beneath the stairs, keeping him totally unaware of his heritage before his coming-out and training in the arts of wizardry on his eleventh birthday.
The story follows Harry's adventures as goes to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he meets new friends, makes new enemies, and encounters the various dragons, trolls, and monsters alluded to earlier as he attempts to solve the mystery of a hidden power. Originally, English writer Rowling titled her novel "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," but the publishers weren't sure if Americans would understand the meaning of a "Philosopher's Stone" (an imaginary object believed capable of transforming base metals into gold and, in some legends as here, of effecting a person's regeneration). This reminds me that when the James Bond adventure "License Revoked" came to the screen, its filmmakers weren't sure if Americans would know what "revoked" meant, so they retitled it "License To Kill." You think if Americans just read more?
Anyway, in order to make the movie succeed, Warner Brothers had to get several things right: They needed the right script, the right cast, the right director, and the right "look." They managed most of it, and, as I say, maybe the reason the movie doesn't entirely click is as much a fault of the book as it is the film. The screenplay by Steven Kloves sticks closely to Rowling's novel, including almost every character and action. The big exception comes at the end where fans of the book may notice that suddenly things don't happen in the film's climax exactly as they occurred on the printed page. It didn't bother me very much, but it annoyed the devil out of the Wife-O-Meter, who kept nudging me that this and that was "wrong." Oh, well, all I can say well is the ending is a minor aberration for the sake of cinematic simplicity and continuity.
Then, there's the cast. They all look terrific, appearing almost exactly as you imagine them in the book. How they act and behave in the film is another matter, though, and the actors' performances may or may not meet everyone's expectations. After an exhaustive search for the perfect English lad to play Harry, they settled on young Daniel Radcliffe. Like the other cast members, Radcliffe looks physically well suited to the role. He just seems a bit less animated than I had wished, a bit less charismatic, a bit less of a screen presence. Nevertheless, Radcliffe is an appealing actor exuding an appropriately simple naïveté, and he would grow into the part to the point where today audiences probably think of Radcliffe and Potter as the same person.
Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as Harry's friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger actually come off with a degree more charm than Radcliffe. They are properly innocent, precocious, and mischievous at the same time. Richard Harris plays the Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, but you'd hardly guess it under the heavy beard and makeup. He hasn't much to do, in any case. More to the point is Maggie Smith as the Deputy Headmistress, Professor Minerva McGonagall, who has a better-written role and who has more of a chance to develop a serious character. Likewise, Robbie Coltrane as the giant gamekeeper, Hagrid, is a major figure in the action, and Coltrane as always is watchable and enjoyable. Whether he quite defines the soft-at-heart tough-guy image we get from the book is open to question, but his more amusingly droll interpretation is highly acceptable. John Cleese has a brief part as Sir Nicholas, "Nearly Headless Nick," a comical ghost who inhabits Hogwarts and shows up at the least-expected and most-inopportune times.
Filling out the remainder of the major roles are Alan Rickman as the ominous Professor Severus Snape; Ian Hart as the inconspicuous Professor Quirrell; John Hurt as Mr. Ollivander; Zoë Wanamaker as Madame Hooch; Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw as Uncle Vernon Dursley and his wife, Aunt Petunia Evans Dursley, the Muggles who raise Potter; and Harry Melling as the Dursley's horribly bratty spoiled child, Dudley Dursley.
The director, Chris Columbus, had to keep all of these people and events flying in the air with the skill of a circus juggler, and he is generally up to the task. To blame him for any flatness in the final product might be unfair, given that his job was primarily to translate almost every moment in the book to the screen. He undoubtedly did his best with what the script offered, but he didn't take many liberties to be overly inventive or innovative.
Which brings us to the "look" of the movie, where we see its greatest strengths. A combination of computer graphics, detailed sets, and real-life locations gives the film the authenticity its fans expect. Unquestionably, the most important set piece is Hogwarts, and it comes off splendidly. Our introduction to the ancient school comes at night, after a spooky supernatural train ride to somewhere in another dimension. Here, the film's huge budget proves its worth as footage of real castles intertwines with matte shots and computer animation to create a convincingly portentous yet wholly magical place--dark and forbidding yet endlessly fascinating, warm, and comforting. Likewise, the forests, the shops, the alleyways, even Hagrid's hut have an imaginative, inviting, fairy-tale enchantment about them.
It isn't the film's fault that the settings haven't the scope or variety of those in "The Lord of the Rings," but "Sorcerer's Stone" does the best with what it's got.
The dual-layer BD50 Blu-ray disc's 1080p, VC-1 encoded, widescreen reproduction captures the film's 2.40:1 aspect ratio nicely. The image is a tad softer than that of the later installments in the series, although it still looks fine. Colors are quite bright in daylight sequences, the tiniest bit duller in others, black levels are strong, and shadow detail appears reasonably well captured at night and in dimly lit scenes. Flesh tones are particularly natural, although there is bit of glassiness to the image now and then. There is also a touch of light grain one notices throughout, undoubtedly a condition of the original print and nothing to fret about.
Whereas the HD DVD of "The Sorcerer's Stone" had a Dolby TrueHD track and the previous Blu-ray edition used uncompressed PCM, this new Ultimate Edition BD comes with DTS-HD Master Audio. On the theatrical version it's 6.1 and on the extended cut 5.1. I couldn't tell much difference between the 6.1 and 5.1, but I'm sure if I sat down and spent more time with it, I would notice some differences in some scenes.
In any case, I'd say the audio provides just about everything you could want, although the soundtrack itself isn't quite as embellished in the surround-sound department as subsequent ones. The frequency range and dynamic impact are certainly impressive, and the bass thunders deeply when the situations calls for it. The side/rear channels add a pleasant ambient bloom to the musical score and enhance one's enjoyment of storms, rain, wind, and creepy noises in the night, though often subtly. I loved the episode with the owls and the letters early on. It is, however, in the disc's transient attacks--the quick, sharp sounds--that the lossless audio track comes into its own. Sounds are crisp and forceful, reproducing gunshots, lightning bolts, and thunder with commendable realism.
Disc one of this four-disc Ultimate Edition contains the two versions of the movie, the theatrical and extended cut, both in widescreen. The main added bonus is the "In-Movie Experience," an interactive feature with picture-in-picture commentary on all aspects of the filmmaking process. The "however" is that it only comes with the theatrical version. In addition, there are English and Spanish spoken languages; Spanish subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; BD-Live access; and thirty-five scene selections.
Disc two is also a Blu-ray on a single-layer BD25 and contains several items, the main one being the high-definition documentary "Creating the World of Harry Potter: Part 1: The Magic Begins." It's a little over an hour long, and as the title suggests, it is the first of a series of documentaries that cover every inch of the films and will eventually stretch into many hours. In addition, the disc contains a two-minute introduction by Daniel Radcliffe; a nine-minute, standard-def featurette made in 2001, "A Glimpse into the World of Harry Potter"; seven additional scenes in HD, most of which the studio incorporated in the extended cut; and a gallery of two theatrical trailers, one teaser trailer, and fifteen TV spots.
Disc three is a regular DVD that duplicates the extras on the previous standard-def edition. It's the fun-and-games portion of the program, which adults (at least this adult) may find tedious. Here, the bonus items become an amusement, with the viewer using the remote to maneuver through the many twists and turns of Diagon Alley and Hogwarts in order to explore and find the secret hidden within. But, as the narrator tells you, stay away "from the third floor corridor on the right-hand side unless you want to die a most painful death." With this in mind, here are some of the things you'll encounter on your way: (1) "Capturing the Stone: A Conversation with director Chris Columbus and producer David Heyman." (2) Diagon Alley: Gringott's Bank, Ollivanders Wands, and Eeylops Owl Emporium. (3) Hogwarts' self-guided tour, in which you use your remote to walk through the school, viewing, among other things, the Gryffindor common room, the Great Hall, Harry's room, the classrooms, and Hagrid's hut. (4) Hogwarts' classrooms, but you'll need to get your wand at Ollivanders first. (5) Hogwarts' library, where you can meet the characters of the book and the ghosts of Hogwarts, open a screaming book, catch a clue to the Mirror Erised, and more. (6) Hogwarts Grounds, where you can catch a Snitch with your remote, get a lesson in Quidditch, and more. (7) Cast a spell over a scene in eight languages with "Harry Potter Throughout the World," an item I still didn't have time or ambition to pursue. And (8) Extra Credit: DVD-ROM materials that include being sorted by the Sorting Hat, playing with Wizard Trading Cards, downloading flying owls, Quidditch screensavers, and Rememberalls, owl e-mail messages, game demos, and so forth. Finally, remember, your goal is to find the stone, so we're told to sneak past Fluffy and other challenges to reveal the secret in the Mirror of Erised. Or something.
Then, disc four contains a digital copy of the theatrical version of the film in standard def. The digital copy is compatible with iTunes and Windows Media, the offer expiring December 8, 2010.
But, wait, as the infomercial announcers would say, that's not all. Besides the four discs, the package includes a forty-eight page, hardbound photo book; the first two cards--Harry Potter and Minerva McGonigall--in a series of character cards; a foldout Digipak case for the main three discs (a case that is also suitable for placing on the shelf if you don't want to display the entire box); an elaborately ornate hard-cardboard box for all the materials; and a fancy, embossed slipcase for the box. Nice.
I recall coming out of the motion picture theater after first seeing "The Sorcerer's Stone" and thinking, "It's cute, I liked it, but it's not quite what I had hoped for." There wasn't, for instance, the sense of joy, awe, and elation I experienced after watching "LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring" a month or so later.
No, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" may not meet everyone's expectations, particularly adults who are looking for something less staid, less wooden, less grounded in the here and now. Despite the film's glorious special effects and dead-on characters and imagery, older viewers may find the movie never seems fully to come to life. Nonetheless, it is a delightful fantasy for children, and on the strength of its Blu-ray high-definition graphics and lossless DTS-HD Master Audio sound alone, it's worth watching. If you've already read the book, the movie is self-recommending in any case.