[box cover]

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Special Widescreen Edition

Warner Home Video

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson,
Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith,
Richard Harris, Ian Hart, Zoë Wanamaker,
John Cleese, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths,
John Hurt, Fiona Shaw, and Julie Walters

Written by Steve Kloves
From the book by J.K. Rowling

Directed by Chris Columbus

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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    

"There's been some criticism from some people that we've been too faithful to the book. My feeling is: If you're a fan of the book, you need to be faithful. If you love something, you should be faithful to it."

Harry Potter director Chris Columbus
in the DVD's "Interviews" featurette

"There are many possible explanations for Harry's broad appeal: a troubled world's need for a little bit of magic, the way the franchise taps into powerful good-versus-evil mythologies, the chance it offers overweight 47-year-olds to retreat from their dreary adult lives into an idealized fantasy childhood. But whatever it is that makes us wild about Harry, one thing is clear: The fantastical universe created by author J.K. Rowling speaks to the child in all of us, whether young or way too old."

— From "Children, Creepy Middle-Aged Weirdos
Swept Up In
Harry Potter Craze,"
The Onion, circa the film's release

Introduction: Harry Potter and the Cultural Fabric

I haven't read the book, so maybe I don't know what I'm missing — but I thought the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was an absolute delight.

Of course, voicing one's opinion on Potter is a bit like emptying a Dixie cup onto a forest fire, isn't it? "Criticism" can barely find purchase whenever a book or film becomes so omnipresent that it loses its status as art object and enters the so-called "cultural fabric" — that Jungian collective hard drive where you'll find such fantasy tales as Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and probably a moldering copy of The Bridges of Madison County.

Potter has certainly earned its place in the fabric, at least in terms of omnipresence. The books alone have sold over 100 million copies — a long way behind the Bible (6 billion and counting) and Mao Tse-Tung's "Little Red Book" (900 million), but still. The movie's worldwide gross hovers around a cool $1 billion.

Gross, Schmoss! Why is Harry Potter worth my time?

Well, like many stories to enter the fabric, the Potter tale is a fairly brilliant pastiche of several cultural tropes.

In English, please!

Harry Potter is a beautifully packaged blend of so many shared human experiences and obsessions that you wonder why nobody thought of it sooner.

Author J.K. Rowling's story is deceptively simple: Harry — an orphan raised by his beastly aunt and uncle — discovers he's actually the famous spawn of wizards when he's invited to attend Hogwarts, a school for magic folk. Under the loose guidance of a giant, the boy struggles through his first year of school — even as he joins the "Quidditch" team (which plays a sort of aerial soccer on broomsticks) and solves the mystery of the "Sorcerer's Stone" with school chums Ron and Hermione.

It's a ripping good children's tale, of course — but Potter transcends Kiddie Lit by juggling a seamless and mature blend of primal themes. In the first book alone, Rowling commingles mythology, class warfare, mentorship, a Scooby Doo mystery, sports, and death — all of it draped on a "hero's quest" plot frame that is itself draped on a boarding-school plot frame straight out of Dickens. (Future volumes, I'm told, interweave all the above and puberty.)

So how's the movie?

As directed with surprising restraint by Chris Columbus from a script by Steve Kloves, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a faithful, longish adaptation packed with talented and/or decrepit British thespians. It's also well-acted, lightly funny, mildly spooky, punctuated with well-staged action set pieces, lit with a perpetual autumn hue, designed to the tiniest candy wrapper and brass railing — and surprisingly tame, given that it's packed with monsters and the near-constant threat of child death.

Frankly, I didn't think Chris Columbus had a film of this caliber in him. He's best-known, of course, for spreading a mawkish trowel in the Home Alone movies, Stepmom, Bicentennial Man and the insipid Hugh Grant breeding tract Nine Months — all of which seemed designed by committee to play safely and unchallengingly to a white, upper-middle-class, nuclear-family audience. (Columbus' debut as a director, Adventures in Babysitting, was a comedy about a bunch of white suburban kids lost in an inner city packed with blacks — a conceit that played into some of the worst stereotypes of yuppie urban paranoia.)

Harry Potter, by contrast, sees Columbus taking the best parts of his later oveure — namely, his ability to work with child actors and compose tasteful images — and merging them with his best, early work as a screenwriter — specifically, on such lightly wicked fare as Gremlins and Young Sherlock Holmes (a marvelous movie that is sadly MIA on DVD at this writing; the Barry Levinson-directed tale of young Holmes and Watson solving a supernatural mystery at their boarding school echoes Sorcerer's Stone in terms of tone and plot to an astonishing degree).

I could go on an on, but you really want to know about the extras, don't you? Suffice to say, the central Quidditch-match set piece is thrilling — and strangely evocative of Return of the Jedi's speeder-bike chase — despite looking like a shiny video-game cut scene. Young Daniel Radcliffe is utterly winning as Harry, a perfect combination of John Lennon and Like Skywalker, and he sets the tone for all the child actors, who carry a two-and-a-half-hour movie on their shoulders with an ease that was probably murderously hard to come by. Meanwhile, the who's-who of British stage luminaries playing the Hogwarts faculty and hangers-on brings just the right tone of headmaster snobbery to the screen.

But is the movie "too faithful" to its source material — a common complaint I've heard from my older friends?

I'm not even sure what that means, really. Every time I've heard someone gripe along those lines, it's struck me that they're really complaining that the overall tone is too sedate — that the whole enterprise has the feel of a PBS "Masterpiece Theatre" miniseries with big-budget F/X. I'd counter that the movie held the attention of tots worldwide, and shows that a solid story is still king for viewers of all ages. If the book turned kids on to the joys of reading, maybe the movie will turn them on to the joys of pledge drives, Deepak Chopra and adenoidal-voiced news-readers.

My only real beef with the film is a certain ... clunkiness in its final-act tone shifts. Near the end of the film, Mr. Potter suddenly finds himself faced with a murderous foe, surrounded by flames, and dishing out some gruesome self-defense worthy of Indiana Jones. It's a pretty sudden lurch into horror — but Columbus et al dispense with the book's bittersweet handling of its aftermath, trying instead to drag us back into jolliness as Harry recovers from his actions. With any luck they'll show a bit more grace in the sequel.

Brief comments from "Rory Gilmore," a 12-year-old female fan of the books who's devoured the preview-screener DVD's contents almost twice already (all exclamation points hers):

"I thought the movie was magnificent!!! The only problems were that the Quidditch match looked a little fake to me, and some of the parts of the book I thought were important were left out of the movie. The best part of the movie version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was the end — when Harry, Ron and Hermione had to get to the Sorcerer's Stone before Snape (or at least that's who they thought was after it ) did. Overall, this movie was cram-packed with action."

Well, fabbo! So how about those "cram-packed" extras? [Warning: many puzzles spoiled below, and gleefully spoiled, at that]

Well, the Harry Potter "special features" are something of a generational double-edged sword:

  1. For meat-and-potatoes viewers over the age of 12, Harry Potter's worthwhile special features are surprisingly few — a couple of trailers, seven deleted scenes (hidden under a tedious "puzzle" that I'll solve for you below), a production-sketch gallery (hidden in a "Library" menu); and a brief, barely-above-EPK-level documentary. To older viewers, Disc Two will probably be regarded as one of those "Easter egg" minefields that fuels the growing revolt against hidden special features — a revulsion summed up rather nicely by D.K. Holm in his Memento: Limited Edition review on The DVD Journal.

  2. However, for viewers under age 12 (and, perhaps, for large-thighed aficionados of customizable card games), Disc Two is something of a low-cal CD-ROM — a meandering World Book Encyclopedia guide to the Harry Potter universe, complete with movie clips, virtual tours of the grounds and "puzzles" that tax not so much the intellect as they do one's remaining time on Earth. There are also a couple of hints as to what we'll be seeing in the just-filmed sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets — hints that will surprise no one who's already read the books.

Is Potter creator J.K. Rowling interviewed anywhere on this disc?


Is there a trailer for the next movie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, anywhere on this disc?


Before we listen to Alexandra prattle on: What did you think of the special-features disc, young Rory Gilmore?

"The only thing I didn't like was that in order to access some of the special features, you had to go back and visit a different part of the disc. This was very confusing to me. Also, most of the things in the extras seemed to be aimed at kids ages 5-9, and had no point. (I guess that's more than one thing I didn't like, isn't it?)

"My favorite part of the special features was when you went to Olivander's Wands, got a wand, went back to the main menu, then went into the "Classrooms" and clicked on the "H." There I found a game that was amusing — but not challenging enough, or with much of a point — to get to the deleted scenes. You will finish this game in five minutes. Tops. "

Thanks, Rory! Now feel free to read the obsessive, perhaps excruciating extras breakdown!

On Disc One, you'll find a Teaser Trailer and Theatrical Trailer; there's also a minimal cast-and-crew listing that leaves out British stage legend Zoë Wanamaker, who played Madame Hooch and who also perhaps coincidentally complained to the Daily Telegraph about her low pay.

Click on the owl on Disc One's main menu and you'll receive an "invitation" to insert Disc Two. Let's do!

The "Special Features" disc immediately sweeps you into the Great Hall at Hogwarts, where you'll see a number of menu icons scattered on the Headmaster's table.

Clicking on the owl takes you to Diagon Alley, where you must dial a clockwise pattern in the brick wall to gain entry. (If you can't figure out the pattern, don't worry; they eventually let you in anyway. The puzzles are, in general, remarkably forgiving, albeit time-consuming.)

Now you're faced with three "storefront" banners, which lead to related submenus. Before you continue, be sure to click the key on the Gringotts banner. Now, then:

  1. Inside Gringotts Bank, you can click on the wall behind the goblin to open up a stash of coins. You can also click on the box of "Every Flavored Beans" on the desk and sample a few different flavors — chocolate, peppermint, buttered toast and (yuck!) sardine. (Yes, this is one of those sorts of special-features discs. We soldier on only because it is our duty.)

  2. Next, visit Ollivander's Wands; you'll have to choose from a few different wands (and generally lay waste to the place) before you're finally rewarded with a maple-and-phoenix-feather model and can leave the musty old dump.

  3. Next up, pop into Eeylops Owl Emporium and click through the birds on display.

(It should be noted that, to get to the final deleted-scenes puzzle, one "only" needs to have picked up money and a wand at Diagon Alley before journeying to the Classrooms menu — a trip detailed below. What's that? A mere 10 minutes of your life?)

Anyway. After that stirring trip to pick up bloody school supplies, journey back to the Great Hall. To the right of the owl is the "Guided Tour of Hogwarts" — a semi-navigable, narrated video guide that takes you through various sets used in the film, allowing you to take in 360-degree panoramas of a few well-appointed rooms.

I'm guessing young Potter obsessives will adore this feature — packed as it is with such, ahm, gripping narrative details as "On the right is where Harry and Ron sat by the fire on Christmas Day, and where Harry received his sweater from Mrs. Weasley." Well, whoop de poop. The tour takes viewers through the Gryffindor commons, into Harry's dorm, and through the Great Hall (where you can, alas, see the set's stage scaffolding and lighting where its "magical ceiling" should be; shame on you, filmmakers!).

Back in the main Great Hall menu, click on the "Sorting Hat" and examine the banners for (and learn the philosophies of) Hogwarts' four student halls: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. Young Rory, I should note, found this feature utterly pointless — as will anyone who's read the books.

Next, click on "Interviews" to find a fluffy 16:23 featurette with sound bites from producer David Heyman, director Chris Columbus, writer Steve Kloves, and production designer Stuart Craig.

These seemingly genial fellows speak highly of author J.K. "Jo" Rowling, and touch lightly on the challenges of casting and bringing the Potter universe to the big screen. Columbus et al also offer hints at what we'll see in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets — a faster, more treacherous Quidditch game, Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockheart, a flying car, a darker-hued mystery, and a host of new characters (but then, if you're still reading, you probably know the sequel's story already).

Back to the main menu. Clicking on the "Extra Credit" scroll teases the disc's DVD-ROM features. Click next on the main menu's cat — and you'll be taken directly to the "Hogwarts Grounds" menu, where a dog, a broom and a noisy Quidditch kit await you:

  1. Clicking in the golden snitch in this menu leads to a maddening game where viewers have to "catch" the snitch with their DVD remote — the reward for said hunt being a short narration on the tiny ball's annoying significance;

  2. Clicking on the other Quidditch balls leads to a short montage of film clips further explicating the rules of the game;

  3. Clicking on the dog's head leads to a navigable video tour of Hagrid's hut that plays like the 3-D tour of Harry's dorm mentioned earlier. At one point, click on the dragon's egg for another clips-derived mini-documentary, this one on raising dragons; you can also click on the picture of Hagrid for a "highlight reel" of Robbie Coltrane as the gentle giant.

  4. There's another batch of "Every Flavored Beans" here, as well; one of them is flavored like a booger (or, as the British say, "bogey"). Such whimsy!

Return to the Great Hall menu and head to the "Library." Inside, you'll find a menu of five books. Moving from left to right:

  1. The first book contains dozens of production sketches of props, monsters, set pieces, and costumes;

  2. Book Two contains a hint you'll need for the final puzzle, which I'm going to solve for you anyway in just a minute;

  3. Book Three is a "photo album" containing short "video highlights" of Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley, Draco Malfoy, Oliver Wood, Seamus Finnigan, Neville Longbottom, Percy Weasley, Madam Hooch, and Filch;

  4. Book Four provides a quick précis of four of the ghosts flitting about Hogwarts;

  5. And Book Five, of course, just screams at you.

The final menu's "big mystery" solved.

Having perused at this point all the other menus accessible from the main Great Hall, let's click on the center menu, "Classrooms." Inside, you'll find submenus for four different fields of study — "Potions," "Defense Against the Dark Arts," "Spells & Charms," and "Transfiguration." Each contains fanciful puzzles and video clips and clues and delightful damned nonsense for tots that will cause me to gnaw off my own fingers if I'm forced to describe them here.

So. Click on the Hogwarts crest at the center of the menu. It contains the puzzle that allows you to access the DVD's seven deleted scenes. Here's the solution:

  1. On the first "trial," select the flute to get past Fluffy;

  2. The next "trial" asks you to select one of a swarm of flying keys. Click on the one with the broken wing. (Having trouble spotting it? After the third "key swarm," it's the key in the deep foreground.)

  3. The final trial asks you to choose one bottle from a menagerie of potions. Choose the round one.

Your reward for all this needless effort? Click on the Sorcerer's Stone in the mirror and you'll get to take a gander at seven mildly entertaining deleted scenes:

  1. Scene 1 (:54) features the Dursleys lavishing attention on their nasty little son while promising to send Harry to a grotty state school in a hand-me-down uniform;

  2. Scene 2 (:37) is an extension of the invitation-delivery scene at the Dursley household — with Mrs. Dursley finding messages in her eggs and owls outside her kitchen window;

  3. Scene 3 (:37) features Hagrid and Harry on the London Underground, talking about school supplies, with Hagrid wishing aloud that he could own a dragon as a pet;

  4. Scene 4 (:18) is a needless bit of business among our three heroes in the hallway, just after their encounter with the troll in the ladies' room;

  5. Scene 5 (1:00) has Ron (in his dorky Christmas sweater) warning Harry (in his dorky Christmas sweater) about the dangers of the Mirror of Erised;

  6. Scene 6 (1:56) is an exposition-heavy bit in the Great Hall — with Harry, Hermione and Ron talking about their upcoming exams, Longbottom hopping in with his legs locked together (thanks to a curse by Malfoy), a bit of bickering with Finnigan, and our heroes drawing a connection between Dumbledore and Nicholas Flammel before dashing off.

  7. And finally, Scene 7 (3:27) is probably the best of the bunch — an extended cut of the bit where Professor Snape first tangles with Harry Potter in his classroom. It's easy to see why they trimmed this scene, however: Potter gets suddenly and unpleasantly insubordinate as he tells Snape to stop picking on him.

Hoping I've saved you a little time,

— Alexandra DuPont

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