Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone Review
It was a daunting challenge, but director Chris Columbus pulled it off. The literary legacy of the Harry Potter series, created by struggling single mother J.K. Rowling, was always going to have a movie adaptation as soon as the first novel hit the bestseller's list. However, many feared that the novel's decidedly British setting would be pushed aside and 'Americanised' in order to become more acceptable to a mainstream audience. To her credit, Rowling held firm, and only signed away the rights to her novels after being given assurances that Harry would be played by a young British actor as opposed to an American one. This marked the end of Steven Spielberg's involvement in the project, as he desperately wanted to cast Haley Joel Osment as the young wizard. As a movie, Harry Potter played by Osment might have worked, but it wouldn't have felt like a faithful adaptation of Rowling's original. Anyhow, Spielberg still had his wish granted and worked with Osment, on the fantastic A.I. Artificial Intelligence instead, which suited the talented young actor much better.
A number of directors were banded with Harry Potter as well as Spielberg, such as Terry Gilliam, Jonathan Demme, Rob Reiner, Robert Zemeckis and Sam Mendes to name only a few, but Home Alone's Chris Columbus was finally given the film because of his past experiences with dealing with child actors. The first novel in Rowling's series was named Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, and yet strangely the film was retitled as Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone solely in the United States, possibly because it was feared that the word 'philosopher' was too big a word to handle for American kids. Surely they would have read the book with the proper title anyway?
As the series is intended by Rowling to consist of seven novels, the film adaptation of the first Harry Potter chapter is obviously going to be very introductory in tone. Despite the rumours of Columbus filming the whole book at four hours, the film has been cut down to two-and-a-half, which has caused many fans of the books to brand the film as episodic and choppy. It's often hard for any film to be one hundred percent faithful to its original book origins, and for the most part the film is a brilliant screen translation of Rowling's work. It follows the three-act setup of a traditional plot suitably, even if the middle act devours most of the film's running time.
Young Harry Potter's (Daniel Radcliffe) parents died in a car crash when he was just born, and so he is being brought up by his uncaring Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon. Harry is treated with such contempt that he is forced to live under the stairs, however, one day a giant man named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) brings with him an invitation for Harry to attend the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Against his aunt and uncle's wishes, Harry attends the school, and soon learns that a magical destiny has awaited him. Equipped with a newly gained anthology of mystical powers and two side-kicks in the form of the bickering Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), Harry's first quest involves stopping the evil Voldemort and a certain Philosopher's Stone.
Bristling with delight, and packed to the brim with visual exuberance that seems suited to most imaginations, Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone is a joyous movie that both children and adults can enjoy. Many will champion the original Rowling novel over the film, but this was always inevitable, as one's own imagination is always the more perfect vision. Despite the delicious humour the film often possesses, it's refreshing to see a fantasy film that takes itself so seriously by casting heavyweights in each role. In fact, the film could be regarded as a Who's-who of British actors. Robbie Coltrane is the film's biggest charmer, providing warmth and charisma as the gentle-giant Hagrid, and Richard Harris is the film's pillar of respect as Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Ian Hart, John Hurt, John Cleese and Julie Walters all provide fine support, and add many points to the film's credibility score. It's a testament to the producers that they were able to resist American Robin Williams request to appear in the film for free, as his nationality would have upset the balance despite his abundance of talent and marketability.
Of the three child leads, Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter is the worst. His dialogue is delivered in a stilted fashion, and his wooden personality is clearly overshadowed by his two support players Rupert Grint and Emma Watson. Grint, as the feisty Ron Weasley, displays a wonderful gift for comic timing, and he demonstrates fine on-screen chemistry with co-star Watson, who sparkles with the usual teacher's pet precocious image. It'll be interesting to see how these young actors battle adolescence with ultra-movie-stardom.
Production wise, Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone is a knockout, from Stuart Craig's inventive production design through to John Seale's vivid cinematography. Particular credit should go to costume designer Judianna Makovsky, who was Oscar nominated for her fine efforts at creating costumes that combined the fantastical with the quaint. The world-famous composer John Williams demonstrates that he can reawaken his old form given the right occasion, by delivering a memorable and bouncy film score that rivals many of his Spielberg collaborations.
This is only the introductory segment of the Harry Potter legacy, and we do not possess the benefits of hindsight in terms of sequels, and whether they will improve or cheapen Columbus' effort. Even so, there is no reason why this film shouldn't be rewarded, for Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone is pure cinematic enjoyment, and even manages to be accessible to almost any age group.
Academy Awards 2001
Academy Award Nominations 2001
Best Production Design - Stuart Craig, Stephanie McMillan
Best Costume Design - Judianna Makovsky
Best Original Score - John Williams
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, the picture quality of Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone is generally very impressive, with sharp visual clarity and detailed imagery. The colours are vibrant, and the only negative aspects can be found within the darker scenes of the movie, in which the occasional grain and artefact can be detected. It's still an impressive transfer, and strongly complements the film experience.
Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, the sound level is impressive, with large, dynamic sound elements and a booming base line. The spatial channelling isn't as 'alive' as it could have been, and the surround elements aren't given as much of a tryout as you would have expect, but the sound mix is still very suitable in the absence of a DTS mix.
Menu: Now for the annoying part. The menu system of Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone is clearly aimed at young children as opposed to DVD aficionados, as it is presented in a sort of 'game' fashion in which the viewer has to partake in childish challenges in order to win special features. This isn't in the same vein as the Limited Edition of Memento, but rather a calculated effort to firmly place itself amongst the child market. Still, the menus are animated in a very stylish fashion, even if they are slightly awkward to navigate.
Packaging: Another annoying element about the DVD is the decision to house the discs in a cardboard gatefold packaging, as opposed to a normal amaray. This gatefold is itself housed in a slide-in cardboard dust cover, which will surely be easily damaged amongst by its children owners.
The special features are different on this Harry Potter DVD as opposed to most DVDs, and the extras that are 'won' aren't anything that elevate themselves over rival DVDs. The second disc is split up into various zones, each representing areas of the Harry Potter universe.
Diagon Alley: By entering the right brick-combination, you will be taken to Diagon Alley. Here you can purchase a wand at Ollivanders Wands or check out an Owl at Eeylops Owl Emporium, but only after making a money withdrawal from Gringotts Bank. This feature is relevant if you want to access the Deleted Scenes hidden feature.
Tour: This is a virtual tour of Hogwarts, with the user choosing which direction to navigate by selecting the arrow keys on the remote. The tour is backed with a narration, and is slightly enjoyable even if the movement is slightly clunky.
Sorting Hat: Here you will be given a rundown of the different houses (Gryffindor, Slytherin, Huffenpuff, Ravenclaw) you can be placed in during your stay at Hogwarts.
Interviews: This is a sixteen-minute roll of interviews with the cast and crew spliced with footage and music from the film. This is a surprisingly enjoyable featurette and illustrates clearly the angle in which the filmmakers approached Rowling's books.
Library: Entering the library will give you access to various books which contain storyboards and sketches of production designs and also brief character introductions to the film's major players.
Hogwart's Grounds: Here you can play a quick-paced Catch The Snitch game or watch a highlights clip of Harry's quidditch game. You can also be given a guided 3D tour of Hagrid's Hut which contains more clues for the hidden extras, and you can taste some Every Flavour Beans which doesn't seem to do anything other than what it suggests.
Classrooms: This is where all of the games and bonus features meet up, and it is here that you can access the Third Corridor if you have achieved all of the DVDs goals. Nothing more will be said...
Deleted Scenes: There are approximately half-an-hour of deleted scenes available on this DVD, and can be accessed only when the viewer has completed several tasks.
Trailers: Two trailers are present, one a teaser and one the full theatrical release trailer. Both set the introductory scene well for the film.
Cast & Crew: A brief, pointless list of the major cast and crew players, presented as text on screen.
Extra Credit - DVD-ROM Features: Many of the extras are reproduced on DVD-ROM format with greater movement and accessibility. There are also other added features that kids will love, such as playable demos of Harry Potter computer games and the ability to use voice-recognition to navigate through the tours. The occasional weblinks are thrown in, coupled with many other little snippets that extend the DVD experience.
A dazzling family film on a technically strong presentation, given a second disc full of extras that are annoying to find and small in number, once you take away the superficial aesthetic of the menu system. Also, the DVD is mostly devoid of any information regarding the filmmaking process, such as commentaries, proper 'making-ofs' or featurettes. This is a shame, as in their haste to firmly fasten themselves to the child market Warner Brothers have forgotten their older fans.