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Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Warner Bros./Warner Home Video . R4 . COLOR . 146 mins . PG . PAL


It is late July 2002 at the time of writing this, and 'Potter-mania' has eased somewhat since the cinematic release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in 2001. The original novel by J.K. Rowling (who is now a very, very rich lady thank you very much) was first published in 1997 and quickly caught the world's imaginations, and not just those of children either. I know a great many adults who are huge fans of the series and I am sure most of us have seen as many adults reading the novels on trains, buses and in their homes, as we have children. The series so far consists of four books, with the second, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets currently in post production and due for release in November 2002.

"Pottermania' has merely taken a breather, and as the countdown gets closer to November, it is inevitable that the PR machine will attempt to whip up the same levels of excitement generated by the first film. Until then, the world will have to make do with the first film available on (spit) VHS and DVD - and what a stink the aspect ratio of this DVD release has caused in Australia. But more on that a little later. For now, let us consider the film, its success, and the levels of interest it has reignited in children's literature, for reasons good and bad.

Eleven year old Harry Potter (Daniel Ratcliffe) lives with his Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and cousin Dudley, in Privet Drive. Trouble is, they do not treat him at all well. Forced to sleep under the stairwell, he is a major inconvenience to them, and even Harry himself considers himself to be pretty dull, that is until the letters begin to arrive. As best as his aunt and uncle try, the letters keep arriving and finally a huge yet friendly fellow, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), personally delivers one to Harry. The letters are an invitation to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry starts to believe life is not so dull after all, and after a series of new and interesting mini-adventures, he arrives at Hogwarts to learn how to become the great wizard everyone expects him to be.

It seems that Harry is already quite famous, though he has no idea why. He learns that a great but evil presence is at work in Hogwarts, trying to steal something that is heavily guarded. That something, we learn, is the Philosopher's Stone, a small stone that will give its owner immortality. This wouldn't normally effect Harry, but he learns that "He Who Cannot Be Named" is not only trying to steal the stone, but also wants to rid the world of Harry Potter whom he fears and hates. He already took care of Harry's parents when Harry was still a baby, and was responsible for the lightning shaped scar on Harry's forehead. With the help of his two friends, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), and after proving himself to be quite a popular young man, Harry finally gets to confront "He Who Cannot Be Named", but does he really have what it takes?

The movie itself is a great adaption of the novel and contains elaborate sets, as well as featuring a big name cast including Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman and John Hurt, with cameos from Julie Walters and John Cleese. The characters all bring something essential to the story, and the film is faithful to the novel, which partly accounts for the 146 minute running time, quite long for a children's movie.

The movie has been embraced by many, and criticised and dismissed by others. The detractors have mainly honed in on the supposed glorification of such things as witchcraft, wizardry, spells, and the matter-of-fact approach to the dark arts. To them, as a former schoolteacher, I say humbug. Anything that encourages a child to pick up a book, fires the imagination, and ignites an interest in literature, is a good thing. Ask kids and they will tell you they know the whole thing is just a story, and a bloody good one at that.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is a great story, and few kids, if any, would not find something in it to excite them. Adults too have been caught up in the excitement, and now you can own it for viewing in your own home - but is it worth it? At the risk of not having yet fully explained why, I am going to say yes, though there is undoubtedly an advantage in buying a copy from either Region 1 or Region 2. Why? Read on, friend, and join in the bun fight.


The one thing that has caused more discussion about the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, certainly in Region 4, is the DVD aspect ratio. By now, anyone who cares about such things will know that the original aspect ratio in the cinema was 2.35:1, but Warner have released the DVD in Region 4 as a combination of full frame and pan and scan. Now before I get emails about such things (which you are of course free to send anyway) what follows here is an opinion, one I know will be supported by a well-informed public.

Pan and scan is an insult. As a discerning DVD viewer I, like many of you, wish to see the damned thing as I saw it in the cinema. Even though we have been given extra 'information' above and below the normal 2.35:1 aspect ratio (where the black bars usually are), there is still a significant amount of the image to the left and the right that has been chopped off. This will not do. One can only hope that Warners' 'experiment' has backfired, and that they have received the message loud and clear. DVD purists demand the original aspect ratio. If Warners feel they must pander to the lowest common denominator (the "I don't like them black bars" brigade), than release titles with both versions. It will cost little to no more, everyone is happy, and Warners will sell more copies. Ipso facto. Both the Region 1 and Region 2 versions have both options, so there is no excuse, and the fact that Warners saw fit to use Region 4 as their guinea pig without explanation or acknowledgement of the discontent only adds insult to the injury. Warners, you are a respected company, now see fit to return that respect.

Aside from this glaring error in judgement, the actual video transfer is quite a good one. The picture is clear and details are sharp and well defined. There is some variation in the sharpness, especially in the darker scenes, and some occasional grain, but not enough to be distracting.

Black levels are very good and consistent, and shadow detail is also very good. There is no evidence of low-level noise. Colours are mostly very good. Skin tones are accurate but there is some colour variance, though this too is not distracting.

If you are particularly fussy, or want to go looking for faults, you will find a few examples of shimmer, edge enhancement, and some very quick but infrequent film artefacts. These are things that most children will never notice, and if you allow yourself to get lost in the action, adults will not notice them either,

The layer change occurs at 70:42, and could have been better placed. It occurs during a fairly tense scene and I feel there were better options that could have been used.


For all the faults with the video transfer (sorry but I am not going to forgive pan and scan for any reason), the audio transfer is quite sensational. The only option is Dolby Digital 5.1 and it is one of the nicest and best thought out transfers I have heard in a while. The most striking thing is the subtle, yet appropriate, musical score from John Williams. It is beautifully placed all around the room via the front and rear speakers. It never interferes with the dialogue, which is mostly from the centre speaker, and all characters are extremely clear and easily understood. The rear speakers are used well for many of the ambient sounds, such as water trickling in dark rooms or the letters being delivered in their thousands, and really comes to the fore during the Quidditch game as players duck and dive in every direction.

It is an audio transfer that will not fail to draw you in and hold you there. The separation is well presented and right from the opening you will find yourself thinking that it is a very rich sounding transfer. There is no other word for it.


Well there certainly are numerous extras on offer, and almost all provide a challenge in accessing them. While disc one has but the barest of extras, disc two has nothing but extras, and while the efforts required to find many of them will delight children, the same efforts will drive many adults bonkers. Many of the extras lie buried and require quite a bit of messing around, and involve casting spells, knowing certain things from the movie, collecting certain items to unlock others, and locating 'hidden' items that will make the search easier. I won't go so far as to call them hidden extras, as they are essential, and not bonuses.

Disc One:

Cast and Crew: This is a silent text-based screen that provides the sketchiest of details.

Theatrical Trailer: At 2:17, this is presented in the aspect ratio 1.85:1, though not anamorphically enhanced. The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and it's your typical theatrical trailer fare.

Teaser Trailer: At 1:46, with the same specifications as the other trailer, aside from the running time. Again it is not earth shattering.

Disc Two:
Let the games begin!

Diagon Alley: When you watch the film, take particular note of the bricks that Hagrid taps to gain entry into Diagon Alley. You will need to do the same here with your remote. Blind luck will be unlikely to succeed. Believe me, I tried. Once you are in, you will find a 'hidden' key that will allow you go to Gringotts Bank, Eeylops, and Ollivanders to get some money, purchase an owl, and buy a wand respectively.

Tour Of Hogwarts: This is an interactive tour in which you choose what to see, and when, by way of arrows presented on-screen. This is a bit slow and tedious and you won't find anything too new in here.

Classrooms: Here is where you will learn some lessons about wizardry. The classes are Defence Against the Dark Arts, Spells and Charms, Potions, and Transfiguration. Classes have snippets from the movie featuring the appropriate teacher, a scene from the film that you can play in several languages, as well as a practical element. As there are only a limited number of possible combinations when you get here, I am not going to give you the answers, and like me you will have to persist. Each time you get something wrong, you will be severely injured and forced to start again, so as you progress with each attempt, note what it is that doesn't get you blown up. When you have passed all your lessons you will be presented with some deleted and extended scenes all in the correct aspect ratio of 2.35:1, anamorphically enhanced and in Dolby Digital 2.0. Good luck!

Sorting Hat: This is simply a voiceover explaining the attributes of each of the four houses, and the sort of children that each house is best suited to.

Library: Here you will find various sketches, artwork, clips and other information from the film.

Hogwarts Grounds: One of the more exciting episodes of the movie, the game of Quidditch, is further explained here. It includes scenes from the film in an anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 aspect ratio, also in Dolby Digital 2.0.

Interviews: Capturing the Stone: This is the longest uninterrupted extra. At 16:24, you can sit back and actually just watch for a change. There are several key crew members such as the producer and the director recounting the process of making the film, with behind the scenes footage included, as well as teaser information about the upcoming Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Extra Credit: You will need a DVD-ROM to utilise this feature, and if you do you will gain access to several children's games, web-based activities, an interactive demo of the Lego Harry Potter game, and other bits and bobs. I found this awkward to access, and clicking on the extra asked me to place the DVD in the DVD-ROM drive - but it was already in there. If it wasn't, then how could I be viewing it? I manually navigated around the folders to access what I could, but gave up after 30 frustrating minutes.


Is there anything new for me to say about Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone? In a word, no. Most of us have seen it, many of us already own it, and others are either indifferent or over it. If you fall into the latter category, then I hate to be the one to tell you, but it will soon begin again with the release of the next film. Oh, the producer did actually mention that there is a chance all seven novels (assuming the last three get published) will be filmed, and it will be interesting to watch the children grow as characters and as people. For those that already own the DVD, or dare I say it, the VHS (spit), then you have already been caught up in the magic. If not, and you are considering buying a copy, the only warning I would give is to be aware that this is a pan and scan transfer, no matter that it is also open matte. If widescreen appeals to you, then importing a Region 1 (NTSC) or the superior Region 2 (PAL) version might be worth considering, but this will cost you more. Don't forget, too, that the Region 1 version has been "Americanised" in that some of it has been refilmed to change certain terminologies, and the Region 4 version includes only some of those changes. This is a fairly common practice with films, but pan and scan is not. Let us hope that Warners have taken note of the significant discontent and will think twice before using Region 4 as a guinea pig again.

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      And I quote...
    "A wonderful and mystical adventure involving all manner of evils and unwanted nasties including trolls, black magic, the dark arts, pan and scan..."
    - Terry Kemp
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
    • TV:
          TEAC CT-F803 80cm Super Flat Screen
    • Receiver:
          Pioneer VSX-D409
    • Speakers:
    • Centre Speaker:
    • Surrounds:
    • Subwoofer:
          Sherwood SP 210W
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard RCA
    • Video Cables:
          standard s-video
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