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Harry PotterThe Harry Potter Series - Ultimate Editions - on Blu-ray disc

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Just in time to cash in on the release of Harry Potter 6 - the weakest entry in the series so far - Warner Home Entertainment has introduced the first two Potter films in a deluxe, "ultimated edition" version that offers a lot of neat stuff.

Assuming you haven't bought the previous boxed set or individual Blu-ray versions.

Still, these new, three disc (two BD's and a DVD) Ultimate Editions are pretty great.

Each movie and an "In Movie Experience" comes on the first disc and, in an interesting twist, each movie is offered in its original theatrical version and a new, extended version with extra scenes. The second Blu-ray disc gives you an episode in a new documentarys series "Creating the World of Harry Potter," and the bonus DVD contains some other special features - though how special they are may be more a matter of personal taste.

The package also contains an envelope in which there's a digital copy of the film (on yet another disc) and a couple of collectible cards and an attractive hardcover book "Creating the World of Harry Potter".

Naturally, it's the movies that are the most important feature and we're pleased to report that the Blu-ray versions are well worth owning. Whether these versions are better than the original Blu-ray releases is debatable, though.

The 1080p widescreen picture quality is very nice indeed, for the most part, though we always thought the first two films looked softer than the rest - which means subsequent Ultimate Editions should be even better. Not that "The Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone" and "Chamber of Secrets" don't look great. In fact, there are spots during the films that are outstanding, but mostly they lack that eye-popping "depth" that looks so great on so many Blu-ray discs.

The audio this time around is offered in dts HD Master Audio, as opposed to the uncompressed PCM of the earlier boxed set. We like the dts option generally - though we also like Dolby TrueHD and PCM - and the sound quality is very good. It's quite loud, very immersive and dynamic, and nice and clean.

Warner Brothers used to lead the way among studios in just getting straight to the feature, even eschewing an opening menu. This appears to be no longer the case, as both of these features open with a commercial for the deluxe Blu-ray edition of The Wizard of Oz (which looks really good, by the way), and then goes to an opening menu from which you can choose which version of the film to watch, audio and subtitle choices, scenes, the In Movie Experience and BD-Live, the latter of which requires you to open an account.

And now, the movies themselves:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (a.k.a. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone")

The first Harry Potter movie quickly became one of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters ever to that time, and it's easy to see why.

It's a marvelous, imaginative, and beautifully-crafted film that's suitable for audiences of any age and background. It's one of those rare films - like the "Star Wars" movies - that will undoubtedly prove timeless in its reach, and nearly universal in its appeal.

That doesn't mean everyone liked it, of course; apparently, some religious groups (in a move reminiscent of the boycott of "Monty Python's Life of Brian"), accused J. K. Rowling's work of promoting witchcraft and, therefore, being evil.

This is far from the truth. Sure, it's about witches and warlocks, but that's merely the setting, the universe in which the Harry Potter stories are set. Rather, they're traditional good versus evil stories, in which good Harry and his friends battle bad witches and warlocks, in this case the evil warlock who years before attacked and killed Harry's parents and left him with a scar on his forehead - and a reputation in wizard lore as "He who survived".

Harry is living a miserable existence with his only relatives, an aunt and uncle who only give him a closet under the stairs for a bedroom and who dote on their oafish son Dudley. Harry's a pleasant enough kid despite all this - and fortunately, shortly after the movie opens he's given (and takes) the opportunity to leave the Dursleys and attend Hogwarts, the elite boarding school for young witches and wizards.

Most of the film takes place at Hogwarts, and it's a marvelous place indeed, populated not only by a bevy of ankle-biter witches and wizards and their teachers, but by a magical ceiling, staircases that seem to take you wherever they please, and enough ghosts and other interesting creatures to keep the most jaded fantasy fan happy. There's even an airborne football-ish game called Quidditch, which brings new meaning to the words "rough and tumble."

The cast is terrific, including the main trio of kids (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, who play Harry and his two closest friends at Hogwarts) but especially the gaggle of great actors who populate the film. We get such acclaimed and excellent thespians as Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Julie Walters, and many more. And yet another classic John Williams score is a treat for the ears.

Director Chris Columbus, who has a record of creating interesting examples of cinefantastique, screenwriter Steve Kloves, and producer David Heyman have remained as faithful as possible to the original novel, and rather than this bogging down the action it actually seems to help, since the action is grounded in J. K. Rowling's vision rather than merely being a shallow Hollywood attempt to cash in. They've definitely given the audience its money's worth - and that not only translated into a cash windfall for Warner Brothers, it also translates into an excellent DVD package the kids are sure to love.

The extended version is only seven minutes longer than the theatrical one, and the stuff they put back in (which is also repeated on disc two) doesn't add a lot. Instead, it fleshes out a few scenes and is quite interesting, though the original version doesn't really suffer from its omission.

The first chapter of the "Creating the World of Harry Potter" documentary is pretty neat. It's just over an hour long and deals with the tasks of casting, production design and the like. It's quite interesting and involving, and it's delightful watching the kids then and "now" (circa 2009). Disc two also contains an introduction by Daniel Radcliffe, a TV special "A Glimpse into the World of Harry Potter", the extra scenes mentioned above, and a collection of trailers and commercials.

Disc Three, the DVD, includes a conversation with the filmmakers, art gallery, a virtual tour and some other silly stuff that's mostly fluff.

The hard cover book is very nice, but doesn't really add a lot of meat to the package that isn't available already on the discs, though of course you don't have to fire up your home theater to enjoy it.

The In-Movie Experience is a picture-in-picture pop-up available on the theatrical version. It's pretty interesting, and features director Columbus and some other cast/crew members along with artwork, storyboards and the like.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, from Warner Home Video
152/159 minutes, 1080p, 16x9 widescreen, dts HD Master Audio
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and an all star cast
Produced by David Heyman
Written by Steve Kloves, Directed by Chris Columbus

Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The first Harry Potter sequel is arguably a better film than “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”

“Chamber” is a darker and more frightening movie than “Stone,” though it’s still suitable for kids. And while this reviewer thought the first Potter was more fun, most people to whom he's spoken prefer "Chamber."

The Ultimate Edition is a good companion to the first movie's, offering three discs (four if you count the digital copy), a book, collectible cards and a very nice package.

This time we see Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) back with his aunt, uncle and their poisonous snake of a kid, biding time until the new school year starts and he can go back to Hogwarts, where he really belongs. He’s been allowed to move out of the closet under the stairs and into a bedroom of his own, but other than that it doesn’t appear as if much has changed with his “first family.” They still hate his guts, feel threatened by his magic abilities, and want him to be neither seen nor heard. But they don’t want him back at school, either, so Harry lives as a virtual prisoner in his own room.

Until the Weasley kids show up in their family’s flying Anglia and break him out. They take him home with them just in time for the lot to head back to Hogwarts.

Ah, but things are different at the school this year. There’s a heaviness to the atmosphere, a sense of dread after an ominous message, written in blood, shows up on one of the walls. Then people and critters start becoming petrified, and Harry is implicated in what appears to be an inevitable murder at the school.

The trio of Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) is pretty resourceful, though, and together they get to the bottom of a fifty year old plot that has conspired to see Professor Dumbledore (Richard Harris) lose his position has headmaster and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) tossed into jail.

There are special effects galore, including monsters such as giant spiders and snakes, and as before we’re treated to a wonderful supporting cast that reunites most of those from the first film and adds a delightfully foppish fraud (Kenneth Branagh) and the intimidating Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs).

The effects are even better than in the first film, and the overall look and feel is as if this is merely chapter two in a video novel - and that’s just fine with us. We’re disappointed in John Williams’ score (and that’s probably the first time we’ve ever said that), which appears to have been merely re-edited from the first movie; we didn’t notice any new themes and, in fact, the closing credits hint that it’s just a cutting job when they credit William Ross for his adaptation.

Too bad; Williams deserves better. And Warners might have sold more "original soundtrack" CD's.

The 1080p picture looks about the same as the original Blu-ray release's, which means it's good but not as good as films three through five. It's very much like that of "Stone", in that at times it's positively brilliant (to coin a phrase), while at others it seems very soft and muted.

Audio is once again offered in dts HD Master Audio and, as with "Stone" it's very involving, uses all channels well, and is quite loud. Delightful!

This Ultimate Edition also offers the In-Movie Experience on the theatrical version. The extended version adds some 13 minutes of scenes that, as with "Stone" are interesting and flesh out some situations. And as with "Stone" the shorter version of the movie doesn't really suffer from their ending up on the cutting room floor (or, in today's case, the cutting room hard drive), though we're glad we got to see them.

Disc Two's Chapter Two of the documentary is about the characters, and deals with the casting. It's delightful and well worth your time. The disc also includes screen tests of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, as well as an HBO First Look special at the movie. There are also the deleted scenes, trailers and commercials.

The DVD that's Disc Three contains a conversation with Potter author J.K. Rowling and screenwriter Steve Kloves, and assorted stuff that the kids'll probably like.

Again, there's a digital copy and a couple of cards as well as a hardcover book. In all, it's a nice package.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, from Warner Home Video
161/174 min. 1080p, 16x9 widescreen, dts HD Master Audio
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and an all star cast
Produced by David Heyman,
Written by Steve Kloves, Directed by Chris Columbus.

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