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.
Vital Disc Stats
These new Ultimate Editions are huge. As tall as a regular DVD case and has wide as five regular Blu-ray disc cases, they'll need an entire shelf dedicated to them if you plan on collecting them all.
Warner seems intent on releasing the 'Harry Potter' franchise in every conceivable fashion. Potter fans just need to pick a collection and go with that it would seem. For the hardcore collectors and fans, the Ultimate Editions may provide the best possible and most complete collection.
The film and extra contents come packed in a huge book-like structure that dwarfs even the bulky 'Rome' casing. It closes nicely with the help of a magnetic strip that’s hidden under the outer material. The book opens up revealing some scenes from the film on the inside cover. Contained in the compartment inside are three things. First, you have a fold out case that houses the film, the special feature disc, and the brand new one-hour documentary "Creating the World of Harry Potter – Part 1: The Magic Begins." Why they couldn't put the film and these discs into a nice Blu-ray keepcase is beyond me. Each of the subsequent Ultimate Editions will also have their own parts of this new documentary, which will end up being around eight hours long. The second thing you'll notice is a fancy envelope, which contains the digital copy of the film and a couple of collectible trading cards (Be warned. Upon inspection of the trading cards sent in my screener copy, I got a Harry Potter one, but on the back it had Snape's name written upside down. Most likely a printing error, but it may not be localized to just my copy. Something to watch out for if you're really into collecting these types of trinkets).
The third item you will find tucked away inside your Ultimate Edition is a booklet that is meant to be a companion piece to the new documentary. Now, compared to that of Digibooks, the book included here really isn't that great of quality. It feels flimsy, as though it could fall apart if handled too much.
'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Ultimate Edition' looks exactly the same as the 2007 Blu-ray release. There's no evidence that Warner took any steps to improve on what they had already released. The 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer is definitely a very solid transfer that knocks the murky DVD counterpart out of the water, but those expecting an upgrade from previous high-def releases will be disappointed. The transfer handles blacks well, but at times finds itself fighting to keep contrast balanced. Faces occasionally seemed a tad washed out when the bright lights hit them just at the right time. The high definition also makes the early CGI, especially the Quidditch match, appear especially fake. Fine detail runs the gamut of clear to blurred. There are times where things like Hagrid's beard takes on such stunning clarity that you'll swear you can count the individual hairs. And then there are other times where the film’s softness completely disregards any facial details at all.
Overall, if you have been impressed with the recent Potter releases from Warner then you will be happy with this edition's video presentation.
Here's where Warner made a few changes. The previous version of 'The Sorcerer's Stone' came with an uncompressed PCM audio presentation. Warner has seen fit to grace the theatrical version of the film with a DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 surround experience, and the extended version with DTS-HD MA 5.1. Compared with each other, there is almost no difference, other than the 6.1 sounded just a tad louder to me than the 5.1. Are these audio presentations better than the earlier PCM one? I would say that they are. The sound, for the most part, is engulfing. There’s plenty of activity in the surround speakers to keep the viewer feeling like a part of the film. One of the most memorable surround sound sequences in the film is when the letters from Hogwarts come flying into the Dursley's home from all directions.
Dialogue is nice and clear, but at times can get a little lost during the booming John Williams score that accompanies the movie. LFE is generous and keeps the sub working overtime during most of the film, especially when the troll comes to visit. All in all, this is a nice presentation that helps capture the magic of the story.
Here you'll find two versions of the film. The theatrical version and the extended version. The theatrical version clocks in at 152 minutes, while the extended version that was overseen by director Chris Columbus adds seven minutes to finish at 159 minutes. I was a bit annoyed that these running times aren't included next to each version within the menu of the film. Instead that info can be found on the back of your slipcover. It's just nice to have the running time announced before you start the film in my opinion.
"Dudley's New School Uniform"
"Petunia Cracks Eggs with Letters Inside"
"Kids Leave Girls' Bathroom"
"Harry Sits by Fire in Great Hall"
"Harry Finds Nicholas Flamel Card"
This disc contains a lot of the special features that have been released on previous versions of the film. Warning this disc is full of those annoying games you play with your Blu-ray remote. Might be fun for the kiddies, but there's nothing here for the adults other than the short filmmaker discussion.
Features missing from previous versions as far as I can tell:
"Around the World: Multi-Language"
"Yearbook Character Clips"
Disc 4 is a Digital Copy of the theatrical version of the film.
If you feel inclined to collect these monstrous Ultimate Editions the new eight-part documentary should be the reason why. Without a remaster of the video and only a marginal improvement in sound, Warner doesn’t seem like they really wanted to put out a pristine set across the board. A remaster of the film would have been something that could have propelled this set into the Must Buy category. Instead it will stay as For Fans Only, because the set isn’t much more than a bunch of Potter stuff thrown together in an enormous package.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.