Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's StoneOverview -
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
When Warner first announced that 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' would be adapted for the big screen, the growing legions of Potter fans held their breath as they awaited word on who would direct the project. Expectations for the film were stratospheric, and many A-list names were being bandied about (including Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton). So when the final selection was unveiled to the world to be Chris Columbus -- the competent helmer beyond such trifles as 'Bicentennial Man' and 'Adventures in Babysitting' -- eyebrows were raised among both Potter fans sand critics alike. Would Columbus be able to take the reins of such a plum assignment, and not only bring a faithful retelling of J.K. Rowling's beloved book to the screen, but also create a transcendent experience that could stand on its own as a classic piece of fantasy filmmaking?
As it turned out, Columbus certainly delivered on at least one of those counts. 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' is downright reverential to its source text, and takes no grave liberties with Rowlings' creation. But at the same time, it also never truly lifts off as the grand, cinematic experience it could have been. It's still a very fine film -- one that's entertaining and well-made, even if it is ultimately as manufactured as a studio theme park ride.
Since anyone reading this is likely familiar with the basics of the story, I'll dispense with the plot synopsis, other than to say that since 'Sorcerer's Stone' was engineered from the get-go to be a franchise-starter, it has the huge burden of introducing us to the entire otherworldly universe of Harry Potter. It must explain to us what a muggle is, how a sorting hat works, and just how the heck a jump through a wall at a train station can magically lead to Hogwarts Academy -- all without coming off as some sort of Cliff's Notes version of Rowling's original vision. Despite all of these expositional hurdles, screenwriter Steve Kloves does an admirable job at keeping everything coherent, without overburdening us with too much magical minuate. It's no wonder Kloves went on to adapt most of the subsequent Potter books for the screen -- his light touch manages to balance just the right amount of cinematic whimsy with Rowling's more literary leanings.
'Sorcerer's Stone' also carries the weight of introducing us to many key characters that will inform Harry Potter's entire seven-story coming-of-age saga. Rowling contractually required Warner to only use British actors to fill out the many denizens of her world, and the studio certainly assembled a first-rate adult cast to buttress the film's less experienced younger actors. Simply put, this may be the most colorful band of thespians you'll ever see in a movie, with Maggie Smith (Professor Minerva McGonagall), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Julie Harris (Mrs. Molly Weasley) and the late Richard Harris (as Albus Dumbledore) being the particular standouts. Though Harry Potter carries the label of "children's fantasy," such smart casting goes a long way toward ensuring that adults will still find plenty to tickle their fancies as well.
Without a doubt, however, it is camaraderie between the film's three young actors that remains most crucial to the sustainability of a seven-strong franchise. The characters of Harry (Daniel Radcliff), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasly (Rupert Grint) are ones we must love by film's end, but it is to Columbus' great credit that our first on-screen introduction to them is underplayed. He gives Radcliff, Watson and Grint the freedom to be natural and convincing, helping to make them engaging and believable heroes despite their inexperience (Radcliff had never even acted before). Likewise, Columbus never lets style get in the way of story, demonstrating above all a respect for the heroes of Rowling's original novels.
Alas, this respect is also what prevents 'Sorcerer's Stone' from ultimately being a truly transformative film -- simply put, it just plays it too safe for greatness. Columbus and Kloves are so slavish to the source text that there's no real sense of cinematic authorship to the movie. Unlike a Spielberg, who still manages to infuse even his most commercial projects with his own distinct sensibility, much of 'Sorcerer's Stone' feels like it could have been made by anyone. Such admirable devotion certainly makes for a faithful and satisfying filmed version of Rowling's book, but it also ensures that it can never be anything more than that.
Still, for any Harry Potter fan, 'Sorcerer's Stone' is certainly a must-see. It sets the stage very well for the future (and in my opinion, far superior) chapters, which only grow more complex and darker as the series wears on. 'Sorcerer's Stone' is also a wonderful achievement on all levels of its production, from the fantastic set design and costumes, to John Seale's fanciful photography, to yet another pitch-perfect score by the legendary John Williams. Although I personally would have liked for Columbus to have taken a few more risks in filtering Rowling's text through his own vision, 'Sorcerer's Stone' remains a respectable and, at times, breathlessly exciting first installment in what has become one of Hollywood's finest fantasy franchises.
I've always found 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' to be the weakest entry of the series in terms of visual design. I suppose that isn't that much of a surprise given the more lighthearted approach the filmmakers took with the material, but the end result certainly lacks the rich contrast and deep colors of later installments in the series. Warner's standard DVD release of 'Sorcerer's Stone' didn't help matters, with a soft and grainy transfer that was far from the type of reference-quality material fans were hoping for.
With that as background, this HD DVD edition is a clear step up over what has come before, but those expecting a this transfer to be some sort of revelation may still find themselves disappointed.
Warner presents 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' in its correct 2.40:1 matted theatrical aspect ratio and 1080p/VC-1 video (an identical encode to the Blu-ray). As the film was originally shot in Super35, grain can be prominent -- most noticeably in darker scenes or those with intense color. Contrast is also the least striking of any of the 'Harry Potter' films, with a hint of flatness to the high end of the grayscale. Blacks remain strong, giving the image some nice pop. Depth and detail are clearly superior on high-def, particularly in the many wide establishing shots, which reveal textures to structures and costumes that were just a soft mush on DVD.
Color reproduction is more troubling. 'Sorcerer's Stone' has a very warm tint to it, which can leave hues somewhat muddled at times (particularly fleshtones). It doesn't help that the film is also very "misty," with lots of use of fog and filters, so the added softness casts a further bland pall over the proceedings. The image is still pretty sharp, and thankfully Warner has not overcompensated with excessive edge enhancement (though I did notice slight halos at times). Likewise, the quality of the encode is excellent, with no obvious compression artifacts. To be sure, 'Sorcerer's Stone' doesn't deliver the kind of fantastic three-dimensional look that so thrilled me with 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,' but it's still a nice step up over the standard-def DVD.
Just as I'm not a complete fan of the visual look of 'Sorcerer's Stone,' I also have my reservations with the film's sound design. The film has always been a bit too muted for my taste, and certainly lacks the aggressiveness of the later sequels. To be fair, 'Sorcerer's Stone' is the least action-heavy of the entire franchise, but even in terms of sustained atmosphere, I wanted more.
This Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit) certainly handles the material with ease, and is on par with the PCM 5.1 Surround track (also 48kHz/16-bit) that's on the Blu-ray version. Although I continue to feel that the film's soundtrack could be more enveloping, that's not to say this is not a lively mix. The many magical shenanigans often make very strong use of the rear channels. Brooms flutter, wands alight and all manner of discrete effects bounce around the soundfield. Imaging is excellent, with seamless pans and a heft to the surrounds that matches the fronts in terms of heft and depth. The wonderful score by John Williams is also very prominent and nicely bled throughout. It's the quieter passages that are too bland for me, with a muted quality to the rears that I felt could be improved.
All other aspects of the recording are up to snuff. Low bass is impressive, with many powerful moments for the subwoofer, and the sense of clarity and realness to the dynamic range is first-rate. Dialogue is also nicely balanced with no volume matching problems. Williams' score is inviting, with even the most aggressive orchestral flourishes exhibiting a very warm and smooth sound. Aside from my issues with surround use, this Dolby TrueHD track is sure to please.
Warner produced a nice-enough package of supplements for the original DVD release of 'Sorcerer's Stone' back in 2002, and although five years have since passed, the studio apparently didn't feel compelled to offer anything new for the film's high-def debut. This is the same package of goodies, all still in standard-def, and while decent enough, it feels pretty dated. Still, I have to commend Warner for righting past wrongs -- the old DVD's menu system was set up like a game, and was so incredibly frustrating to navigate that simply accessing the set's special features was a total chore. That unwieldy design has been dropped here, with all of the following supplements easily located from the HD DVD's pop-up menu.
- Featurette: "Capturing the Stone" (SD, 16 minutes) - Shot on the set of 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,' this 2001 interview with director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steve Klove gives a pleasant overview of waht went into adapting the novel and casting its characters, but there's nothing here that most Harry Potter fans haven't known for years now.
- Additional Scenes (SD, 9 minutes) - There are seven scenes in all. As was the case with the previous DVD, there's no context provided, although fans of the book will of course recognize each scene's significance immediately. I didn't think any of these scenes stood out as particularly essential, especially since the film already runs a healthy 152 minutes.
- Yearbook Character Clips (SD) - Perhaps the most useless feature on the old DVD, each clip is just a short montage of excerpts highlighting one of ten different characters, including Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley, Draco Malfoy, Oliver Wood, Seamus Finnigan, Neville Longbottom, Percy Weasley, Madam Hooch and Filch Stone.
- Around the World: Multi-Language Clip (SD) - A fun if frivolous feature, this presents a single scene from the film in eight different languages. Sure, it's cute to watch the Potter kids speaking in badly-dubbed voices, but is it really a good idea to teach young viewers that foreign dialects are inherently funny?
- Lessons in Quidditch (SD, 3 minutes) - This was originally produced as a prize for playing an interactive game on the original DVD, and it comes off as a little odd in this context. In any case, it's just another montage of film clips intercut with tips on the fictional sport.
- Theatrical Trailers (SD) - Wrapping up this package are both the teaser and the full theatrical trailer for 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.' Unfortunately, both are presented in standard-def only.
A respectable kick-off to a now-legendary film franchise, 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' may not soar to the heights of top-flight fantasy filmmaking, but it's still good enough to keep us interested in further chapters. I felt the same way about this HD DVD release. The video, audio and supplements are all solid, but they're only a prelude to the true greatness to come.
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