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Boutique titles were the trademark of a massive 2002 blockbuster movie year, and the latest Harry Potter was definitely up there amongst the best. The books took over the minds of children and the shelves of bookstores on their way to perennial best-sellers lists, so it was no surprise that they made their way on to the big screen and even less of a surprise that they were successful. The second instalment was highly anticipated, particularly after the box-office gold the first film turned out to be. And believe me, there's plenty of life in little Harry yet.

The slick menu system

Movie
Thankfully this film doesn't waste time covering old ground to get newcomers up to speed. The story has to be simple enough for children to understand so most will pick up the style of the film and the characters pretty quickly. Yes, you'll probably get a little more out of it by watching the first movie in the franchise but it's definitely not a necessity.

This time the little Potter-meister has lot more sinister events to deal with, and for someone who hasn't read the books this came as a bit of a surprise. I originally thought the series of films was just going to be plain, old children's wizard-fluff but there's a few scares here and there that might frighten the kiddies.

We begin with Harry being paid a visit from a little creature named Dobby the House Elf, kind of a cross between Gollum, Yoda and Jar Jar Binks (keeping the film franchise connection well and truly intact). But moments later Harry is freed from his involuntary house arrest at the hands of those evil relatives by a couple of his mates and proceeds to return to Hogwarth's School of Wizadry. It is here that Harry and his magical pals stumble upon dark forces that could well spell the end (pardon the pun) of his beloved school. It seems the Chamber Of Secrets has been opened and measures must be taken to ensure it gets closed right back up again before it's too late!

It's good to see a real commitment made to these films, where any number of things could've been conducted incorrectly to ruin the charm and appeal of the movies. The screenplays have been adapted faithfully from the book, the whole cast returns for the second instalment (and subsequent films, I'm lead to believe) and the action is more refined than it's predecessor.

While the kids may wriggle about from time to time as it's length spans a whopping 154 minutes, the much more interesting subject matter will ensure they get the best use out of their limited attention spans. And let's face it, these movies accommodate the odd moment of misdirected attention every now and then.

The bed bugs were getting bigger every year

In all you've got yourself a well-produced children's film with a little in it for older audiences, coupled with some slick production values and top notch performances from the likes of Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, the late, great Richard Harris and Maggie Smith, who seem to revel in the playfulness of the script and their characters. Daniel Radcliffe puts in another admirable performance that doesn't set the world on fire but provides the audience with a likeable hero the kids will enjoy to watch. Bring on the next Potter flick, because if it's as improved as this one was we're in for a real treat.

Video
Following the debacle that was Warner's Pan & Scan release of the first instalment I am pleased to announce we've been well respected this time, given a 2.35:1, 16:9 enhanced transfer after all the screaming and shouting us Aussies made last time. And it seems a little extra effort has gone into this transfer to appease the ever-so-fussy masses, and rightfully so.

As I mentioned before, the production design is one of the standout aspects of the film and comes up wonderfully on this disc. All the bright colours are rendered brilliantly and the shadows are given some very deep blacks while still retaining sharpness overall. Some scenes are a little softer than others which keeps the transfer from reference quality but on the whole there's very little to complain about here. And heck, you name a time when a kid has turned to it's mother and said, "Mommy please tell me that wasn't an instance of aliasing I witnessed in the transfer just then." Sit back and enjoy.

Audio
WHOOOOOOOOSH!

Some great effects unsurprisingly make this a great audio soundtrack, with every part of the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix working it's hardest to ensure the viewer is immersed in Potter's fantasy world. The soundtrack is put through a range of effects, tones and pitches, all of which sound as clear as day out of every single speaker. Anything from Dobby banging his head against the wall to Harry using his magical prowess sounds brilliant shooting around the rears, with the subwoofer called upon on regular occasions to provide some much-needed backup.

John Williams again provides the score and, like always, he doesn’t disappoint. Add this great track to his stable of blockbuster releases and it’s one hell of a CV. The audio mix on the DVD doesn’t let him down, either, as every note is pushed perfectly out of every speaker, including some great surround use every now and then. Top notch.

Nerds rule.

Extras
Here’s where the guts of the release is, housed mainly on a dedicated second disc. But firstly on the main disc there’s a re-worked trailer (entitled Year One At Hogwart’s) for the first instalment and the theatrical trailer from the second film.

To kick off the main supplements disc there are some incredibly elaborate and intricate animated menus that invite the user to really explore what there is to offer on the disc. The first extra I looked at was the additional scenes section, which features a great interface with which to navigate the twenty or so deleted scenes. In all these are good to watch, with a fair few scenes worthy of placement in the film but obviously cut due to time constraints. Thankfully there’s a play all feature so you can view all the scenes at once.

The game preview features six short clips from the PC and console games on the market. No play all feature but for gamers this should really whet your appetite for more. Next is a section called Gilderoy Lockhart’s Classroom where you can view a photo gallery, a scrolling certificates gallery including one for most charming smile and a required reading section featuring several books supposedly written by the magical man.

Peak-hour was easily avoided

The Behind Hogwart’s section consists of a conversation with J.K.Rowling and Steve Kloves that is an interesting piece on how the two worked together on the screenplay. There is also a build a scene feature nestled inside Dumbledore’s Office, which doesn’t so much let you create a scene yourself but give you a rundown on how the scenes were created. The tour of Dumbledore’s Office is a nifty feature where you can use your remote control (or mouse) to navigate around the office much like those interactive DVDs (Point Of View, Tender Loving Care and the like) that are still in their infancy. Still in this section there are more interviews, this time with the actors, classed as either students (the youngters) or professors (the oldies). The children’s section is rather simple, while the adult interviews are great to hear mixed in with some clips from the film, even though some are quite short. Rounding out this section is a gallery of production sketches which are cleverly housed on a gallery wall. This is beginning to look like the best use of a menu system to date.

Next up is the Activities section, where you’ll find a couple of cute little games such as the Chamber Challenge which is similar to the quiz found on Microsoft Encarta many years back, and The Forbidden Forest Challenge, a memory game where you have to get out of the forest using your remote control and your wits. The other pieces in this section are Colin’s Darkroom which features production stills from the film and a Tour of Diagon Alley, a great tour where you can meet some of the locals along the way.

Finally ending the extras section is the Spellcaster’s Knowledge test, a multiple choice quiz that links in brilliantly with clips from the film. And don’t forget there’s also some DVD-ROM content for you to peruse if you chuck the disc into your PC.

This highlights just how much thought, planning and expertise went into creating what is easily one of the best menu systems going around. The extras are all well worth a look, the tours are outstanding and there’s enough in it for the kids to keep them busy well after they’ve finished watching the movie. The menu may be a little tricky for some of the younger audience members but hopefully mum and dad will help them get around all the great stuff on the second disc. An outstanding extras package.

Potter's posse

Overall
This latest Potter flick has improved markedly over it’s predecessor, and the first instalment was certainly nothing to be sneezed at. The whole package has gone up a notch, from the brilliant transfer to the immersive audio track and the juicy, creative extras section, rounding out what is one of the most impressive DVD packages of recent times, arguably bettered only by a certain other fantasy that threatens to remain as the greatest trilogy of releases ever, so it’s no insult to be coming second. Potter will be back, so if there are more improvements in store I can’t wait to get my hands on the discs.


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