September turns out to be D-Day for sexy Blu-ray sets. Even with the unfortunate delay of The Avengers Phase 1, we’ve still got giant collections for Titanic, James Bond, Indiana Jones and Alfred Hitchcock. The good people at Warner Bros – prepping the Harry Potter Wizard’s Collection to kick off the fun – likely realized early on that they needed to bring their A-game to compete, especially with the series so recently ending and a glut of other Potter DVDs and Blu-rays readily available. Looking at the new set, however, “A-game” is an understatement. It’s more like “exercising the nuclear option.” Good luck making a splash with this 600-pound gorilla in the room. Hit the jump for my full review.
And in a lot of ways, I mean that quite literally. The massive box set weighs 19 pounds, heavy enough to crush fingers, toes and small pets if dropped. It resembles a wizard’s chest, revealing all manner of drawers, folders and slots inside. The very act of opening it constitutes a special joy, as does finding the various hidden latches and compartments where numerous goodies lay in wait.
Before we get to that, though, let’s talk about the films themselves: all eight are included, of course, in both DVD and Blu-ray editions. The first two include extended editions as well as the theatrical versions. We’ll take basic familiarity with the Potterverse as a given.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The inaugural entry in the series actually gets off to a comparatively rocky start. It’s certainly not bad, but you can sense the filmmakers working in “don’t screw this up” mode rather than “let’s make this awesome” mode. As Daniel Radcliffe’s abused Harry learns of his wondrous heritage and travels to Hogwarts School for the first time, we get the sense of going through the motions. Harry’s stated “specialness” allows him to overcome obstacles seemingly without effort, robbing the story of its early drama. The three young leads – including Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger and Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley – take time to settle into their roles, while director Chris Columbus tackles the unenviable task of laying the foundation for J.K. Rowling’s fantastic world.
The results mute the magic considerably… but at the same time do a great deal of the heavy lifting that helped later movies thrive. The Sorcerer’s Stone unloads huge tracts of the universe to newcomers – quidditch, Diagon Alley, the school houses, key players like Dumbledore (Richard Harris) and Snape (Alan Rickman), and the dark history between Harry and Lord Voldemort – that need to be in place for the saga to work.
More importantly, it does so in a manner that feels inclusive and friendly to newcomers instead of just pandering to the fans. Columbus, often derided as a by-the-numbers studio hack, proves to be a sterling steward of Rowling’s work: getting the ball rolling with respect and reverence instead of glomming his own “vision” onto hers. (As the set’s extra features show, he also took pains to make his young cast’s lives as normal as possible, which probably explains why they’re not freebasing crack or holding up liquor stores these days.) The Sorcerer’s Stone is the series’ weakest entry, but only because it has so much to do… and in the final equation, ends up doing it fairly well.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
“I stand by what I said last year: you would have done well in Slytherin.” So says the Sorting Hat towards the end of Chamber of Secrets… and in that moment brings the totality of Rowling’s genius into sharp relief. The Hat – used as a modestly cool plot device in Sorcerer’s Stone – suddenly gains a reality and an existence beyond the needs of the story. We see where it “lives,” we note its actions separate from Harry’s narrative, and as it so adroitly informs us, it knew what it was talking about when it suggested that Harry join the hated Slytherins. That sells us on the universe completely. The conceits in play exist free of the plot, and can actually turn around and bite the heroes on the ass if they’re not careful. (For example, the Room of Requirement in later entries hides Harry and his friends from Professor Umbridge… then hides Malfoy from them just one movie later.)
And Columbus, freshly primed from the first film, takes full advantage of the opportunity. Chamber of Secrets soars when the first film merely crept, enthralling where the first film just explained. It allows us to share the wonder and excitement of the books, to invest us in the outcome, and to see why the great and wondrous Harry Potter is so great and wondrous. It’s not because of some magical destiny, but because he’s clever and brave and can figure out solutions to things that other people wouldn’t consider. Add to that a scarier threat, gorgeous effects and the sterling work by the supporting cast (including Harris, who died before shooting on the third film began), and it sets a solid bar for the remainder of the series to match.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The third entry in the saga brought a new director – and not just any director, but the renowned Alfonso Cuaron – along with a fair amount of controversy among longtime Potter fans. Many of them felt that Cuaron took too many liberties with Rowling’s text, particularly with the enigmatic Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) whom they felt received short shrift on screen. On the other hand, Cuaron brought an elegance to the camera work and a spookier look at Hogwarts that lent Prisoner of Azkaban a distinctive identity. It often feels like a pause in the action, focusing on Harry’s growth as a character rather than his ultimate destiny, but with strong work from the increasingly confident Radcliffe, we don’t mind it one bit. Azkaban also adds the first hints of doubt into Harry’s mind. Things are never as they appear in this entry, and as the exquisitely rendered Dementors reminded us, there are terrifying consequences for those who assume too much too quickly.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
With the series firing on all cylinders, new director Mike Newell steps in to up the ante considerably. The Goblet of Fire finally gives us a long-awaited look at Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and… yup, he sacres the righteous crap out of us. That he arrives in the midst of a comparatively trivial concern – Harry’s participation in the Tri-Wizard Tournament – further cements Rowling’s canny understanding of her hero’s place in the larger world. Hogwarts had served as a sanctuary for him, and his concerns remained largely those of a young pre-teen. With The Goblet of Fire, he comes face to face with the frightening forces arrayed against him, as well as the fact that they were playing for keeps.
Had Newell stopped there, he still would have had a winner. But The Goblet of Fire delivers all that without forgetting Harry’s more personal struggles as well. We thus get copious scenes involving a mid-winter ball, an awkward first kiss, and the fact that a fair number of people at Hogwarts think Harry is a self-important douche, all of which feel important in their own way without lessening the much larger danger looming on the horizon. Previous entries do their jobs well, but Goblet of Fire shifts to a higher gear, letting us know (as the tagline promised) that nothing will ever be the same.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The fifth entry in the series shows the first signs of franchise fatigue. Voldemort’s loose! He’s gunning for Harry! What are we gonna do!? Oh right, we’re going to wait for three more movies before finally getting around to their big face-off. That perceived slowdown might have derailed the entire saga had director David Yates (who served as director for the remainder of the series) handled with less grace or tact. He follows Columbus’s example by keeping his eye on the big picture.
After years of battling extraordinary supernatural threats, Harry and Dumbledore (played since Harris’s death with great distinction by Michael Gambon) now face a chillingly ordinary one. Face and mistrust grip the wizarding community, and those in power would rather pretend Voldemort doesn’t exist instead of facing the danger head-on. Harry’s response to it – establishing a secret society and preparing his fellow students for the war to come – gives Order of the Phoenix a momentum that powers it through the doldrums.
It also delivers a trump card with a new villain: the delightfully horrible Professor Delores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). Rowling took a risk in delivering a late-inning bad guy with so many of them already crowding the scene, but Umbridge’s iron-fisted bureaucrat makes a refreshing counter-point to the black-as-night supervillainy we’ve grown used to. Staunton is a revelation – one part Mary Poppins, two parts Joseph Stalin – and marks the series’ most memorable antagonist besides Voldemort himself. With her stalwart aid, Order of the Phoenix goes from a place-holding also-ran to one of the better chapters in the saga.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
With time running out, The Half-Blood Prince concerns itself mostly with stage-setting. We need a refresher on what’s at stake (everything), an outlining of Harry’s ultimate task (get those Horcruxes) and a shuffling of supporting characters to their assigned places (Snape to Voldemort’s side, Harry to nascent exile and Dumbledore to… well that would be telling.) Yates goes about his task with workmanlike resolution, using bleak sets and desiccated cinematography to convey a universe slowly falling apart.
It works brilliantly, not just in what we see, but in what we feel is coming. The Half-Blood Prince holds startling revelations, but like The Sorcerer’s Stone, it needs to prepare for future movies rather than deliver on its own potential. That hampers it a bit as a stand-alone movie, but as a part of the big picture, it becomes absolutely essential.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 and 2
And here it is at last, a finale so big that they needed two movies to deliver it all. The decision to break The Deathly Hallows in half makes all kinds of sense (not the least of which to Warners accountants who relished the opportunity to keep milking the franchise), but during the theatrical release, it demanded a certain amount of patience from the audience. Part I handles all manner of plot threads, with Harry and his friends on the run while Voldemort completes his domination of the wizarding world. It essentially acts as an extended rise to the top of the roller coaster: punctuated by dramatic moments (including the death of a major character) but keeping its powder in reserve for Part 2.
The last film, conversely, is pretty much solid payoff all the way through, as Voldemort launches an all-out attack on Hogwart’s, and Harry and his friends brace for the final conflict. It thus feels more energized and exciting than any of the previous seven films… though it couldn’t do so without all of their tireless prep work. (God help anyone who walks in to Part 2 without being properly briefed.)
That last bit is extremely important, because it makes The Deathly Hallows part of a whole rather than a stand-alone apex. I imagine it will see more replay among Potter fans than any of the others, but that doesn’t make it a separate or distinct thing. Rowling’s vision required an epic of this breadth to truly flourish, and while both parts of The Deathly Hallows deliver a terrific climax, they also shine a brilliant light on the six films that preceded them. (Luckily, the Blu-rays allow you to watch both parts back-to-back, effectively eliminating the wonky shift in tone between them.)
The consistent level of quality marks the most extraordinary thing about this series. Expectations couldn’t be higher when it arrived, and had any of its stewards dropped the ball, the fans would have pounced without mercy. (They often did anyway.) Not only did it survive, but it actively thrived through eight movies that never dipped below decent and often tickled the edges of greatness. In the annals of cinema, that constitutes an unparalleled feat. The Lord of the Rings did well, but it only had to maintain the streak over three movies (we’ll see how The Hobbit does this fall). James Bond and Star Trek ran longer, but both had their share of staggering boners, and we won’t even talk about the likes of Friday the 13th. Harry Potter outmatches all of them because it sticks resolutely to the plan. It honors Rowling’s work, it respects the fan base, and it focuses on character and humanity without skimping on the spectacle. That these films got made so well and so true to Rowling’s spirit constitutes a minor miracle.
The discs themselves adhere to high standards of quality, though Warners is a little disingenuous with the count. There’s 31 of them… but 8 are DVD versions of the movie (duplicating the 8 Blu-ray versions in the same set) and two merely deliver 3-D editions of The Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2.
Even with the duplicates, however, the material never fails to impress. Each movie contains the bonus discs from the Ultimate Edition Blu-ray sets: one Blu-ray disc and one DVD disc for the first four movies, and one Blu-ray disc alone for the last four. They contain every documentary, behind-the-scenes special, trailer, teaser, lost scene and concept gallery to ever appear on a Potter DVD or Blu-ray.
Hard-core fans will likely gravitate towards the content in Deathly Hallows I and 2, which didn’t receive Ultimate Blu-ray editions and contain extras that haven’t been seen before. Specifically, that means Parts 7 and 8 of the “Building the World of Harry Potter” documentaries. (Parts 1 through 6 are included with the six earlier movies). Part 7 involves a lengthy conversation between Rowling and screenwriter Steve Kloves about their collaboration, while Part 8 covers the transition of the young cast members from childhood to adulthood (including how the producers got them a proper education and otherwise prevented them from turning into entitled little monsters). Watching the stars grow up before our eyes constitutes one of the series quieter joys, which the doc places in proper context.
On top of all that, the set contains an additional disc with another four hours of material, including a look at the emotional last days of production, a featurette on the film’s stunt doubles (one of whom suffered a horrific injury on set), a piece on production designer Stuart Craig and a very illuminating explanation of how they made Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid look like a giant. (Hint: it wasn’t CGI.)
The box constitutes a selling point in and of itself: solid and sturdy, with runes and symbols of all varieties emblazoned on its sides. Not all of its compartments are easy to find, but the search for them proves far more Easter egg hunt than chore. Seven pieces of memorabilia are included in the set: a fabric map of Hogwart’s, a blueprint of the school’s interior, a set of concept art prints, a set of sketch prints, a replica of Voldemort’s Horcrux locket, and two books containing images of key props and labels from the production. A certificate of authenticity and a scroll containing information on digital downloads complete the set.
It can all get quite overwhelming… and it also highlights one of the real sales problems Warners has with this set. They’re not just double-dipping: they’re quadruple- or quintuple-dipping at this point. Long-time Potter fans have a right to feel slighted after spending years paying for multiple versions of their existing sets. On the other hand, things don’t get any more definitive than this. Those willing to shell out the $500 sticker price ($345 on Amazon at the moment) won’t need to buy a single Potter disc again, regardless of whether they have a Blu-ray or are still using DVDs. In order to top it, Warners needs to send Radcliffe to deliver a new set to your home in person… then wash your car, do your taxes and take your daughter to the prom. It’s definitely an investment – and the films themselves don’t change from any previously owned Blu-rays or DVDs – but you can’t accuse the studio of half-assing it. The Harry Potter Wizard’s Collection isn’t just the most impressive Blu-ray release of the year: it may be the coolest set you’ll ever see.