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HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE
Widescreen

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  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
Director:  Chris Columbus
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1 EX
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  152 Minutes
Release Date:  May 28, 2002

“Now, if you two don’t mind, I’m going to bed before either of you comes up with another clever idea to get us killed.  Or worse, EXPELLED!”

“She needs to sort out her priorities.”

Film ***

I’ve never read any of the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling myself, so I can only talk about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from the point of view of the movie, which, in a nutshell, is visually vivid, very imaginative, features a great cast (especially the young newcomers), and is a bit too long if it’s supposed to be a movie aimed at kids.

Of course, grown-ups and kids alike have shown affinity for young Mr. Potter over the years, so maybe the film isn’t entirely aimed at the youthful fans.  Perhaps in order to capture all of the magic of the original book, director Chris Columbus and crew couldn’t afford to cut anything.  But there again, I’m commenting on that which I do not know from experience.

As millions of readers and moviegoers doubtless know, this tale is about a boy who discovers he has the lineage of a wizard.  Harry (Radcliffe) starts out in life as an underappreciated, underloved and unwelcome relative living with a boorish aunt and uncle, but his luck changes with a series of invitations to join the Hogwarts School for wizardry and witchcraft.

There, he makes a couple of friends:  the nice-but-awkward Ron Weasley (Grint) and the smart-but-occasionally-superior Hermione Granger (Watson).  The school is people with familiar actors in tremendous roles, from Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall to Richard Harris as Dumbledore, to the irreplaceable Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, who befriends young Harry from the start.

But on equal level with the characters is the look of the film…each scene is filled with such painstaking detail that it’s impossible to really see it all in one setting.  Portraits in the backgrounds move from time to time.  The ceiling isn’t really a ceiling…or is it?  Staircases move about on a whim, and much more.  Every setting in the film reverberates with the cherished notion of fantasy.  This is not a world that could exist outside of the imagination, and that’s exactly how it appears.

Plotwise, the story follows Harry and his friends as they learn the ropes during their first year at Hogwarts.  We learn something of Harry’s background, and why his abilities seem so natural.  He becomes the youngest “seeker” to play Quidditch, which is a wild aerial romp of a game that can only be described as rugby for magicians.  But while his knowledge and skills help him in some situations, they lead him into trouble in others, as he gets closer and closer to a dangerous challenge that he might not yet be ready to face.

The film is terrifically entertaining, if a bit slow moving at times.  I was amazed, for example, that it took 40 minutes into the film to get Harry to the school…it took only half that long to get Dorothy into Oz, even with a song to sing beforehand!  And some sequences, no matter how well-crafted and spectacular, do nothing to further the story.  Once again, I have to guess that they exist as sort of tokens of faith for the millions of loyal readers who expected to see them.

What I liked best about the movie were the three young stars.  Daniel Radcliffe had big literary shoes to fill in portraying a character so vividly drawn in many different imaginations…I think he did a fine job.  He’s earnest and believable throughout.  Rupert Grint is terrific, playing Ron with a self-depreciating humor, but investing him with heart and loyalty as well.  But the real scene-stealer is fresh-faced Emma Watson, who lights up the screen in every scene she appears in and invests Hermione with winsome charm.  The three exhibit great chemistry together, which carries the movie even further than the effects and design.

I can’t help my assessment that the film is too long, though maybe no one else will agree with me.  Two and a half hours just doesn’t seem a suitable running time for a picture of this nature.  But fans have already proven they’re wild about Harry with the box office numbers, and will no doubt do so again with video sales, so I’m willing to admit I may be wrong.  What does a muggle like me know, anyway?

Video ***

This is not a bad looking anamorphic transfer from Warner, but it could have used a little more effort in the margins.  Many sequences in Harry Potter are dark and misty, and these don’t translate as well as possible (see: The Others).  You can see a bit of shimmer and grain in them.  Images are generally sharp, with a little softness here and there.  Coloring is quite good and natural looking in all lighting levels. 

One word of advice:  this film is filled with visual flairs from start to finish.  Avoid the pan & scan version at all costs.

Audio ****

The 5.1 EX track fares much better…this is a movie with plenty of noise and makes great use of multi-channel sound.  There is smooth crossover action from start to finish.  The Quidditch sequence, the chess game, and the finale are three prime examples, but hardly the only ones.  The audio stays open with a rich ambient sound.  Great halls sound like great halls, crowd noises are full and encompassing, and best of all, John Williams’ terrific musical score emphasizes everything with dynamic punch.  Highest marks.

Features ***

It’s kind of hard to explain or rate the features, but I’ll try…disc one has the trailers and cast and crew listings (but no additional info other than who did what).  Disc two contains a 16 minute interview featurette, which talks a little about this movie and future ones.  The rest of the disc is set up like an interactive version of Hogwarts.  You can visit Diagon Alley, collect school supplies, go on interactive 3-D tours through the halls and school, pick on various items to learn more about them (including books in a library), practice making potions and casting spells, and so on.  You even get to try your hand at catching a snitch!  The gimmick is, it’s like a game…you’ll need to collect certain objects from certain areas before you can proceed with certain others.  It’s not hard, but takes some patience.  The end result is a bonus of 7 deleted scenes, if you complete the school challenges correctly.

There are also plenty of goodies for you DVD ROM, including wizard trading cards, the Sorting Hat, screensavers and more.  Overall, the features are a bit weak on real content, but cleverly done, and probably a lot of fun for the kids.

Summary:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a magical, imaginative, and fun-filled romp through the world created by J. K. Rowling and beloved by readers of all ages world wide.  Despite a questionably long running time, this is a picture with a great look and a superb young cast.  I, for one, am ready for the next installment.