Note: I will start this review by stating that I have never read a single page of a "Harry Potter" book, have never heard anything about the characters and simply know little in general about the stories and locations that the novels open up for readers.
That said, while I can't discuss the similarities or differences from the book to the film, I can discuss whether or not those who are unfamiliar will enjoy - and I think they will. Director Chris Columbus and writer Steve Kloves have included enough discription and story elements that those who walk in knowing little or nothing about Harry Potter may not be guaranteed to enjoy the film's events, but at least they should understand what's unfolding.
Speaking of director Chris Columbus, his addition to this picture did somewhat concern me, as I've strongly disliked most of the director's pictures (especially the recent "Bicentennial Man") and his general heavy-handed and often sappy style of storytelling. I'm pleased to say that, aside from a few moments of nutrasweet, "Harry Potter" remains quick and lively rather than grounded by cute moments, which could have happened with the story's fantasy elements.
The story revolves around one young lad named Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), who, as the story opens, lives with his horribly mean Aunt, Uncle and Cousin. One day, an owl swoops in and drops off a letter addressed to Harry. It's ripped up by his uncle. Again and again, letters are dropped off by this rather magical form of airborne delivery until a legion of birds sit outside and await the message's reception. When it appears as if Harry's never going to get the letter, an assault of them suddenly rumble inwards, coming from the outdoors to the indoors via any available opening. It's an entertaining moment, as a hurricane of what seems to be thousands of envelopes enter the room and fly about.
Pleasantly enough, I found the entire first third of the movie to be wonderful: clever, well-acted, imaginative and energetic. Obviously, Harry eventually leaves, thanks to Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), a friendly and talkative giant who takes Potter on a journey to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Prior to his arrival, the movie offers up another imaginative sequence where Harry buys his school supplies, which includes figuring out what magic wand is right for him.
On his journey to the school and once he arrives, Harry meets up with a legion of other characters, such as friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson, in a performance that demonstrates terrific timing and great humor) and enemies, such as Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). There's also the staff, including Dumbledore (Richard Harris) and other characters played by Maggie Smith, Ian Hart and the always superb Alan Rickman, who is excellent again here in a small-ish role.
Once at the school, Harry realizes that something's not quite right. It's up to Harry and friends to figure out who the enemy is and what it is that they're seeking. I won't give away more than that, as I don't want to ruin some of the film's suprises for those who aren't familiar with the stories. Those who have read them already (and that's a massive audience) already know what the story holds.
As I stepped out of the theater, I wasn't quite sure how I felt about the movie. I certainly thought that it was great, but I couldn't quite put my finger on what the film didn't quite deliver to bring it beyond the level of simply being "great". Pondering further, I believe what I had the problem with was the middle of the picture, which, although often entertaining, does have the picture starting to spin its wheels a bit. It's not that I was ever bored throughout the entire thing, it's simply that there are parts in the middle that I felt didn't quite offer the same level of consistent energy and surprises around every corner. What I felt as if I'd seen were: a great begining, a good - but occasionally inconsistent - middle and a respectably entertaining finish.
The three lead child actors are on-screen for the great majority of the picture and one of them could have really sunk or negatively effected the picture (as it did with Lucas's "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace"). Thankfully, all three are quite good, although Emma Watson gets the best lines of the three and delivers them with excellent timing. Technically, the picture is marvelous. The great John Seale ("Perfect Storm", "The English Patient") delivers gorgeous cinematography, production design is magnificent and the John Williams score is stellar. Last, but not least, the visual effects, which are done by Cinesite and Mill Film (who also worked on "Tomb Raider"), as well as Sony Pictures Imageworks, Industrial Light & Magic and Rhythm & Hues, are often outstanding and only once or twice just "okay".
Adults seem to be a bit worried about whether or not kids will stay interested for the entire 150 minute running time - both those who are parents and those who are not are likely nervous that they'll find themselves in the middle of a showing with several disinterested kids running up and down the aisles. While I think the film might briefly lose the attention span of some children, I think it's busy and entertaining enough so that this shouldn't be too much of a problem.
Overall, I was surprised and pleased with the film. I still don't think that Chris Columbus was the best choice to direct this or the next "Harry Potter" movie, but this picture really turned out quite well, aside from a few minor concerns.
VIDEO: Warner Brothers presents "Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone" in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Australian cinematographer John Seale ("The Perfect Storm", "English Patient")'s widescreen compositions really do shine in this excellent effort from Warner Brothers. While there are a few minor concerns and imperfections, the movie's beautiful imagery dazzles the eyes on this presentation. Sharpness and detail are superb, as the picture appeared very sharp and well-defined throughout, with a terrific three-dimensional feel to the image during many scenes of the film.
As for the previously mentioned imperfections, they remain slight and hardly noticable. Some minor edge enhancement was infrequently noticed, as was a trace or two of pixelation, but neither was distracting. The print appeared largely clear and clean, although some very minimal grain was occasionally spotted, with the opening scene showing a more mild amount. A little bit of shimmering was spotted once or twice, as well.
The film's warm and rich color palette was presented superbly throughout. Colors appeared well-saturated and vivid, whether the golden colors of the inside of the school or the bright colors of the outdoor scenes. Black level was perfect throughout, while flesh tones looked accurate and natural. This is a very nice transfer that occasionally looks quite stunning.
SOUND: Warner Brothers presents "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" in Dolby Digital 5.1-EX. It's dissapointing that the film does not boast a DTS soundtrack option as well, although not entirely surprising, given that Warner has not widely supported DTS. The film's length also might have resulted in lack of necessary space. The film's soundtrack is generally an exciting affair, although the John Williams score is the element of the soundtrack that gets the most focus throughout the movie.
As for surround effects, there are several scenes of agressive surround use that are appropriate for the film (the Quidditch match), but there are also a few scenes here and there that could have put the rear speakers to be a more use to present sound effects. The surrounds are often employed to reinforce the Williams score, which is excellent and certainly does sound great filling the room.
Audio quality was excellent throughout. The Wililams score sounded crisp and warm, with terrific clarity and presence in the presentation. Dialogue and sound effects also remained clear. Bass really wasn't an issue for much of the soundtrack, although there were occasionally some more intense sequences where bass was deep and strong. This is a highly enjoyable audio presentation, although part of me wished it would it a bit more intense and agressive.
MENUS: The main menus are nicely animated and transitions also contain animation. The menus aren't too striking or unpredictable, however, and are generally geared towards being used by a younger audience.
EXTRAS: The extras are not all along the lines of most supplements that are usually found on a DVD. There is no commentary (which is fairly understandable, given that the cast and crew are working on the next film) and most of the supplementals are games, geared towards younger audiences. Unfortunately, it also takes work to unlock some of the supplemental features and get into some of the supplemental areas.
Disc One: The only supplements included on Disc 1 with the film are the film's two theatrical trailers and cast/crew bios.
Diagon Alley: This section allows viewers to go shopping for supplies, much like Harry does in the movie. While most adults will find this rather boring, I thought the interactivity was fairly impressive and kids should enjoy. Be forewarned, you will need something here to get into another section in the supplements.
Tour: This is an interactive tour of the sets. The movement from room-to-room is smooth and it might be of interest to some to take a closer look at some of the production design/sets.
Sorting Hat: An explanation of the different groups at the school.
Interviews: This is an informative 15-minute featurette containing interviews with director Chris Columbus, writer Steve Kloves as well as the production designer, producer and others. All involved discuss their thoughts about adapting such a widely loved novel as well as other production details and what it was like to work with the cast. There's also some discussion of what will happen in the next movie and the sequel's new characters. Certainly better than this kind of featurette usually is.
Classroom: Clips, games and other elements are to be found within the classrooms. It also takes a certain item to get in. There are also 7 deleted scenes hidden deep within this section.
The Grounds: Rules of Quidditch as well as a tour of Hagrids.
Library: Production design concepts, character bios.
DVD-ROM: Wizard trading cards, screensaver, Owl emails, weblinks, game samples and more.
Final Thoughts: "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is a highly entertaining adventure that the whole family will likely enjoy. Warner Brothers has prepared a DVD that offers extras that are not particularly memorable, but very good audio/video quality. Recommended.
The Film *** 1/2