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review added: 5/14/02



Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Special Widescreen Edition - 2001 (2002) - Warner Bros.

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Special Widescreen Edition Program Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/A-/D*

*Extras = A (if you still believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy)


Specs and Features

Disc One: The Film
Approx. 152 mins, PG, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL single-layered (layer switch at 1:13:39 in chpater 18), custom slipcase/gatefold packaging, theatrical trailer, teaser trailer, cast listing, animated program-themed menus with music, scene access (35 chapters), languages: English & Spanish (DD 5.1), subtitles: English & Spanish, Closed Captioned

Disc Two: Games and Extras
single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), custom slipcase/gatefold packaging, interview video (with director Chris Columbus, producer David Heyman and writer Steve Kloves), interactive games, "sorting hat", VR tours of Hogwarts & Hagrid's hut, visit places from film (Diagon Alley, Gringots, classrooms, Olivanders, etc...), interactive library with video clips, Quidditch tutorial, Easter eggs (including, sadly, 7 deleted scenes from the film - see bottom for access instructions), multi-language clips, DVD-ROM extras (including more games, trading cards, voice-activation, better VR tours, e-mail access, sorting hat and other nonsense), animated program-themed menus with music, languages: English (DD 2.0)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (or Philosopher's Stone depending on your geographical location) is a charming adaptation of the first book in author J.K. Rowling's epic, soon to be 7-book tale about a young boy named Harry Potter, who discovers one day that he's born to make magic and accomplish great things in the world. When Harry receives an invitation to Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, his adventure into the mysterious and sometimes dangerous world of magic begins.

To tell any more about this story to fans would be irrelevant. And to tell any more to those of you who haven't seen the film or read the books would be a disservice. Suffice it to say that the Harry Potter books are worldwide smash hits with both young and old alike for a reason - they're original, inventive, easy to connect with and stir the imagination greatly. I've read all four so far and loved them in the same way I love Star Wars - they're just sheer, unashamed fun.

When director Chris Columbus set out to adapt the first film in this series, I was frankly against the idea. I didn't think he could do it. I honestly didn't think ANYONE could do it. Well, not only did he craft a fun little film that manages to be very faithful to the books, he and his team captured almost perfectly the look of the world and its characters that I had in my mind after reading them. Young actors Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are perfect as the heroes of the story, Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione. Robbie Coltrane simply steals the show as the larger-than-life Hagrid. And the film is loaded with wonderful performances by a literal Who's-Who of European acting talent, including John Cleese, Richard Harris, John Hurt, Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith, just to name a few. Even the score by John Williams is remarkable for its playfulness.

But what this first Harry Potter film does lack somewhat is a measure of heart - the sort of mirthful, light-hearted easiness that the books have in spades. And the special effects in this film are also horribly uneven, with some looking wonderful and other scenes (the Quidditch game for example) looking awfully digital and unnatural. Still, given the challenge this first film presented, I'm simply pleased the filmmakers achieved as much as they did. I'm suspect that as Columbus and company move on to the second and third films in this series, they'll eventually be able to capture more of the spirit and "magical" realism fans want to see. The first time, as they say, is always the toughest. And what they have managed here services the first Potter book just fine.

All right... so that's the film. Now for the disc. And this is not gonna be pleasant. Warner has released Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone on DVD in separate widescreen and full frame versions. Each version features the film on Disc One and "extra material" on Disc Two. The film itself looks good, but not great. This is definitely not up to the high quality standards Warner's set in the past. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is good, but lacks the crisp clarity of other recent releases by the studio. Contrast is excellent and colors are generally rich and accurate, but the video has a softness to it that is surprising given the new transfer. There's also a good deal of digital compression artifacting that adds noise to the picture, most notably during scenes of fog, cloud and smoke and in fine shadow detail. The problem here is two-fold. First of all, at 152 minutes, this is a pretty long film. It is also a film packed full of fog, cloud, smoke and fine shadow detail - the world of Potter is, after all, a dark and mysterious one. The simple fact of the matter is that for this film to look the way it should on DVD, Warner should have split it over two discs. But since "market research" indicates kids wouldn't understand that, they had to do their best to cram it all on one. And don't get me wrong - it looks okay. But it should be better.

The audio does fare somewhat better, although surprisingly most of this film's mix driven by dialogue, music and ambiance. And it's handled very well, with a very wide front soundstage, excellent clarity and good bass. When the mix does get active during set-piece action scenes, like the Quidditch match or the challenges that lead up to finding the Sorcerer's Stone, you'll then hear great panning and surround channel usage, all very dynamic and smooth, which draws you right into the middle of the action.

Now for Disc Two...

Okay, I'm a 34-year-old film writer. I love the Harry Potter books. And I liked this film. But I don't much care for Disc Two of this set. Remember a few months back when our own Todd Doogan lamented the dumbing down of DVD, and this disc in particular? Boy did people complain about that. Well, don't say we didn't try to warn you. Todd was right, folks. The "bonus" disc of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone on DVD is gonna drive anyone over the age of 10 crazy.

It's not that there aren't lots of things to do on Disc Two. No, there are literally TONS of interactive games, virtual tours and other fun things for the kids. The entire disc is designed to take you into the mythical world of Harry Potter - to make it a real place for you to explore and find surprises. You can visit the classrooms and mix potions, and the Hogwarts library and read the books. You can take an IPIX virtual tour of the dormitory and Hagrid's hut, and learn about the rules for Quidditch. There are lots of Easter eggs to find, including Bernie Bott's Every Flavor Beans. And you can even go on an interactive journey to find the Sorcerer's Stone itself.

Oh, we're not done yet - on the DVD-ROM side of this disc, you'll find voice-activation, online digital cards you can trade, screen savers, PC game demos, access to e-mail, a sorting hat and tons of other games as well. A lot of people obviously worked very hard on Disc Two of this set, and it IS really nice stuff. The problem is, if you're an adult, you're not gonna give a rip about ANY of it. Not one little bit of it. And that's a shame, because there's a very large part of the audience for this film - all you adults who put these books on top of the NY Times bestseller list for damn near forever - that gets left in the dust by this DVD.

What you film fans want are things like interviews with the filmmakers and deleted scenes. And to be fair, they are on here. Unfortunately, only the 15-minute interview video with the director, producer and screenwriter is easily accessible. It's fine and all - they talk about their approach to the film, the story and the production design, and give you a little sneak peek at the characters you'll meet in the next film (now in production for release later this year). But it's a pittance compared to what you'd like to have as a fan of this film. And those deleted scenes? There are 7 of them... but you can only get them as a reward for searching for the Sorcerer's Stone. And that's a long, involved process that means getting a wand from one virtual location on the disc, and then going to another location and accomplishing a number of interactive challenges. The fatal flaw here, is that there is no "muggle" menu option in case you just want to skip all the fluff. When Disney released their elaborately interactive Snow White DVD, they were smart enough to include a menu access option geared toward the adults in the audience. Not so here. If you really want to find the scenes, set aside about ten minutes and use the instructions I've provided below. But the rest of you might just as well pretend this is a single-disc, movie only DVD. For all its bells and whistles, Disc Two is virtually worthless to film fans.

So there's the rub. Harry Potter is a great DVD... if you're still working to lose those a few of those baby teeth. But I expect most of you reading this are a little more sophisticated - just trust me... don't even bother with Disc Two. And sadly, you serious home theater buffs are going to be disappointed by Disc One's quality as well. Warner really needs to revisit this title on DVD in a better version for us Muggles - with the film split over two discs, with audio commentary, with production design artwork and the kinds of things we all REALLY care about. Or maybe that's been part of their marketing plan all along. Who knows? In any case, if interactive carnival fun is what you buy DVDs for, have at it. But for my money, if I really wanted to play games on a DVD-like disc... I'd buy an XBox.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com


Deleted Scene Access Instructions

So you're braving it, eh? Okay then. With Disc Two in your player, from the main menu, select "Diagon Alley". You'll be faced with a brick wall from which you'll be asked to select the right bricks to let you inside. Just click on a few - the third time you fail to get the right combination, the disc will let you in anyway. Inside Diagon Alley, select the key on the Gringots sign. Inside Gringots, select the coins to get the money you'll need to buy a wand. Next go to Olivanders and select a wand. Once you've finally found one that works, leave Diagon Alley and go back out to the main menu. Select "classrooms". When you get to that page, select "down" on your remote to highlight the creatures on the statue and hit enter twice. You'll be taken into the third floor corridor, where you'll see a three-headed dog. Select the flute and hit enter. Next you'll be taken to a room with flying keys. Select the one farthest back in the center with the broken wing and hit enter. Next you'll see a number of potion bottles. Select the large round one just right of center in the top row and hit enter. At last, you'll see the mirror with the stone in the center. Select the stone and hit enter. FINALLY, you have access to a series of seven deleted scenes in anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Enjoy... if you still care at this point.

One note - the deleted scenes are Titles 27-33 on Disc Two... if you can find a way to get at them with that information. Good luck, because I couldn't.




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