Way back in the dawn of prehistory (around 2002, I believe) I was invited down to Warner Brothers in London to preview the first DVD release of Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone. I got the world exclusive review published that night, and remember warning viewers that there were strong rumours of a Directors Cut in the offing for the future. Little did I know that the extended cut eventually would eventually make its debut not on a shiny silver disc, but as an exclusive on American TV channel ABC. Over the years, Warners have milked the Harry Potter franchise just as hard as they possibly can, but the extended versions of the movies have never appeared on digital media. However, with the release of the sixth film in the franchise, all this has changed and over the next few years all the films are being re-released in Ultimate editions on both DVD and Blu-ray. This will mean that by the release of the final film to the home, all will be available in the extended format. I will go into exactly what is included in this set, and how it looks during the extras section, but for this page I will just concentrate on the new version of the film itself.
When the film was originally being prepped, the names being bandied around to direct it were some of the best in the business. Spielberg was the prime candidate at one stage. The surprise announcement was eventually that Chris Columbus would be taking the helm. The choice eventually became a metaphor for the film itself - always going for the safe, dependable choice. The film was always conceived as the starter of a franchise, and as such it does somewhat suffer from the weight of expectation.
Harry Potter is an orphan who is living with his Aunt and Uncle in suburbia. He is treated as the family skivvy, and bullied by his spoilt cousin Dursley. It soon becomes clear that Harry is special when an event in a zoo involves him communicating with a snake. Subsequently strange letters start arriving inviting him to enrol at Hogwarts school. Bizarrely, his family do their best to remove him from reality, eventually hiding on a strange island in the middle of a violent ocean. A mountain of a man called Hagrid arrives and takes Harry off to a new world, a world of witches and wizards. Harry eventually finds himself at Hogwarts school, trying to come to terms with his new found powers, and also trying to solve the mystery of a strange stone which is hidden somewhere in the school.
As mentioned before, Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone (as the American version was known) is responsible for setting up a whole franchise. Therefore it does need to impart a lot of information to the uninitiated. It needs to make the viewers understand what a Muggle is, how Quidditch is played, who the staff and pupils are, the house system at the school, and many other things. It needs to do this whilst still entertaining the viewer. Generally, it has to be said, that Columbus has done a good job. He may have taken the safe and sensible option in his approach, but it is difficult to see how he could have approached the adaptation any other way.
The positives of the film far outweigh the negatives. The cast is generally top notch. Rowling stipulated as part of the rights deal that all actors should be British. The budget thrown at the film means that the cream of British talent appear, and it is unlikely that you will get such a roster of talent in any other film. Alan Rickman, Richard Harris, Dame Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane - every actor is a recognised talent (as opposed to a recognised name) and they do an outstanding job of bringing their characters, and the world, to the screen. Standouts, in particular, are Rickman as the ambiguous Severous Snape and the late Richard Harris who brought a surprising and moving gentleness to the role of Dumbledore. Alongside this stellar cast, the three major child characters (looking absurdly young) do rather suffer in comparison. Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, for example, is particularly wooden in this film, and Rupert Grint is not much better. In fact, out of the three only Emma Watson as Hermione come out of the proceedings with any credit - bringing snootiness to the role that really does sell the character. Of course, we now know that all three would go on to portray the characters perfectly as they gained more experience, and as this was their first screen roles it is difficult to be too critical.
The effects, too, are excellent - although they do rather show their age now. The troll, and the three headed Fluffy are both a little rough around the edges, but the first appearance of He Who Must Not Be Named in the woods is superbly done - as is the denouement of the film. Quidditch makes an appearance and is satisfactorily brutal, and various other moving portraits and staircases are well integrated.
However, the film does come across as a series of set pieces rather than a coherent, well-plotted movie. Some chunks of the book are left out, although the story doesn't suffer because of this. The problem is that what is left in does rather struggle to breathe fully within the run time. Whereas this does mean the pacing is fast and furious it also means that there is little sense of character development or the film ever allowing the viewer to truly immerse themselves in the world that is being created. In addition to this, Hogwarts itself seems to have a half-finished look to it. It wasn't until the third film that the environment became the one we know and love today, and work on refining the design was going on right until that point. Therefore, it can be a little disorientating to find that well known landmarks are in a completely different place to where we now know them to be. Hagrid's hut, for example, is much closer to the school, and looks completely different. Real world locations are used as part of the school, with the rest made up of CGI and set work. This can lead to things looking rather inconsistent - and it is quite strange for such a big blockbuster. Likewise although the concept of the moving portraits, stairwells, and school ghosts are introduced in this film - they never feel as integral a part of the environments as they do from the third film onwards. It is almost, at times, as if Columbus has simply forgotten to include them after first introducing them towards the beginning.
All of this may seem rather negative - I do not mean it to be so. The film IS a very well made, faithful adaptation of the book and is an extremely competent start to the franchise. That subsequent films showed far more imagination, and much more directorial flair is not necessarily to the detriment of this first film. Columbus has a specific task with this film, and he does this very well. The film stands up excellently today as an entry into a constantly evolving franchise, and without this firm foundation it is unlikely that other directors would have been able to stamp their own identities onto the world.
But then again, the reality is that you know all of this already. As Harry Potter is the highest grossing franchise of all time, you are likely to be extremely familiar with the film. What you really want to know is - what is included in this film that is enough to make you want to upgrade? Well, in terms of extra footage, this new version of the film is a little bit of a misnomer. If you have owned any previous version on disc, there is absolutely nothing here that you haven't seen before. All that has been done is that the deleted scenes from your previous disc have been reinserted back into the film. This is only a few minutes of footage, and none of it is brand new, or adds that much to the experience or story. So, if you are only thinking of upgrading for the extra footage then quite honestly you really shouldn't bother. However, I do strongly believe that you should read the “extra features” section of this review for making your final upgrade decision as there may be other reasons for you to upgrade.
To summarise things, then, the film may have its flaws but it is certainly a very solid introduction to the filmic world of Harry Potter. It builds a firm foundation for the rest of the series, and moves a long at a solid pace. The acting from the children can be a little wooden at times, and the whole world that Columbus has created sometimes seems a little unfinished. However, there are some solid set pieces - and some excellent British talent among the adult actors. There is no footage here that has not previously been available, and the shot scenes that were not included amongst the deleted scenes are still conspicuous by their absence. However, the film is as solid as it ever was, and is well worth watching for fantasy fans.
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