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Harry Potter and the Philosopher's

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone on DVD

By Jim Bray

The first Harry Potter movie quickly became one of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters ever, and it's easy to see why.

It's a marvelous, imaginative, and beautifully-crafted film that's suitable for audiences of any age and background. It's one of those rare films - like the "Star Wars" movies - that will undoubtedly prove timeless in its reach, and nearly universal in its appeal.

That doesn't mean everyone liked it, of course; various religious groups, in a move reminiscent of the boycott of "Monty Python's Life of Brian" without having seen it, accused J. K. Rowling's work as promoting witchcraft and, therefore, being evil.

This is far from the truth. Sure, it's about witches and warlocks, but that's merely the universe in which the Harry Potter stories are set. Rather, they're traditional good versus evil stories, in which Harry and his friends battle bad witches and warlocks, in this case the evil warlock who years before attacked and killed Harry's parents and left him with a scar on his forehead - and a reputation in wizard lore as the one person who survived.

Harry is living a miserable existence with his only relatives, an aunt and uncle who only give him a closet under the stairs for a bedroom and who dote on their oafish son Dudley. Harry's a pleasant enough kid despite all this - and fortunately, shortly after the movie opens he's given (and takes) the opportunity to leave the Dursleys and attend Hogwarts, the elite boarding school for young witches and wizards.

Most of the film takes place at Hogwarts, and it's a marvelous place indeed, populated not only by a bevy of ankle-biter witches and wizards and their teachers, but by a magical ceiling, staircases that seem to take you wherever they please, and enough ghosts and interesting other creatures to keep the most jaded fantasy fan happy. There's even an airborne football-ish game called Quidditch, which brings new meaning to the words "rough and tumble."

The cast is terrific, including the main trio of kids (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, who play Harry and his two closest friends at Hogwarts) but especially the gaggle of great actors who populate the film. We get such acclaimed and excellent thespians as Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Julie Walters, and many more. And yet another classic John Williams score (this one is quite reminiscent of Danny Elfman's best work) is a treat for the ears.

Director Chris Columbus, who has a record of creating interesting examples of cinefantastique, screenwriter Steve Kloves, and producer David Heyman have deliberately remained as faithful as possible to the original novel (or so they and others who've read the book say), and rather than this bogging down the action it actually seems to help, since the action is grounded in J. K. Rowling's vision rather than merely being a shallow Hollywood attempt to cash in. They've definitely given the audience its money's worth - and that not only translated into a cash windfall for Warner Brothers, it also translates into an excellent DVD package the kids are sure to love.

The two disc "Harry Potter" is available in either widescreen or Pan&Scan versions, each of which is sold separately. I hate this apparent trend in recent DVD releases because it does consumers a disservice: while owners of "conventional" 4x3 aspect ratio TV's may be happy right now to have a version with no black bars above and below the screen, it's sure to turn around and bite them when they purchase 16x9 TV's (which they inevitably will) and discover they have to stretch and/or zoom the picture to fit the new aspect ratio.

This means that, to best exploit their new TV's, they'll have to buy a second copy of the DVD, which is undoubtedly what the studio has in mind.

Better to offer both versions in the same package, which is also a common strategy, even if they have to charge an extra couple of dollars for it.

We, fortunately, received the anamorphic widescreen version, which is 16x9 TV compatible, and it's excellent. The picture quality appears a tad soft when you begin watching, but this impression doesn't last. On the whole, the images are sharp and crisp, and the colors are rich and vivid, though a tad "otherworldly" in the palettes. While the video image isn't as good as some of the most spectacular DVD's, for example the Superbit "Fifth Element," it's eminently watchable and by the time you're about five minutes into the film you're hooked.

Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 (no separate DTS track is offered, unfortunately), and the sound quality is also excellent - though we were surprised there wasn't more use made of the surround channels. This isn't a problem with the DVD, however; more, it's the director's choice - and where the surround is invoked, it fills the home theater nicely.

There's really only one extra on Disc One, and it's a list of the cast and crew - and unfortunately it's only a list: there's no bio or filmography information accompanying it.

Disc Two has plenty of extras, however - though they're definitely aimed at the ankle biters and might be more than a bit frustrating to older folks. You're forced to play little mind games to access many of the features and while this might provide "hours of fun" for the little kids, I grew tired of the interface very quickly and actually bailed out on some of the extras for that reason.

Still, there's plenty there and the kids'll probably love it.

Between the DVD and the DVD ROM component (the latter of which requires you to install the "InterActual player" software to get at it - and uses the World Wide Web as the storage medium for some of the extras) you can access an abundance of stuff, including some scenes supposedly created (or at least finished) specifically for the DVD release. There's also a "self guided" tour of Hogwarts you can navigate with your DVD player's remote control. You can also use your remote to catch a Snitch (watch the movie to see what a Snitch is) in a "Quidditch Lesson".

You can also visit the Hogwarts library and poke around some books, mix potions (and if you don't get it right you're kicked out), perform transfigurations, etc.

There's a lot more, too, enough to keep those ankle biters out of your hair for hours at a time! Warners has definitely created a good babysitter here...

In all, even though some of the extras are fairly lame, it's a terrific DVD package overall, one that families - and fans of the cinefantastique - will cherish.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, from Warner Home Video
152 minutes, anamorphic widescreen / Pan&Scan (on different discs), Dolby Digital 5.1
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and an all star cast
Produced by David Heyman
Written by Steve Kloves, Directed by Chris Columbus


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Updated May 13, 2006