This is maybe my least-favorite installment in the "Potter" series, the movie being very dark and depressing and never seeming to develop much forward momentum. In any case, Warner Bros. have now given us a Blu-ray "Ultimate Edition" of 2007's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," and while the film may not be the best of the lot in terms of plot and characterization, it is among the very best in terms of picture and sound quality, with the additional bonus materials a pleasant treat.
But first to the movie, where it's hard not to see some good; if you find any deficiencies in this one, blame most of it on the source material. Given the movie's time constraints, English director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg stick as closely as possible to J.K. Rowling's book, both a blessing and a curse.
At the end of my review for the last film, "The Goblet of Fire," I wrote that it would be interesting to see what the filmmakers would do with the next book in the cycle, 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,' which I thought was the most ponderous and tedious thing Rowling had yet written. I'm afraid that while this new "Potter" is among the best-looking chapters in the series, it suffers from the same problems that plagued the book. It is not much of a stand-alone picture but, rather, a transition from one major story strand to the next.
In this regard, "Order of the Phoenix" is much like "The Prisoner of Azkaban." Of that film I wrote, "Seen as a link in the progression of stories, 'Azkaban' works well enough, but taken on its own, it feels rather unfinished and, ultimately, unfulfilling." Same thing here. "Order of the Phoenix" even shares with "Azkaban" the darkest tone yet in a "Potter" film.
"Order of the Phoenix" follows the same basic pattern set down by the previous "Potter" films, with one big exception. You'll remember that we always get young Harry facing an assortment of conflicts with lesser antagonists and then having some kind of showdown at the end with the main bad guy, Lord Voldemort. At the conclusion of "Goblet of Fire," it was a wand fight. This time, however, the major conflict is not so much with ordinary antagonists as it is within Harry himself. Harry is growing up, facing young manhood, and "Phoenix" is more a coming-of-age tale than anything else, with Harry, always the outsider at Hogwarts (and in the conventional world as well), having to learn who he is, who his friends are, and how to deal with life's new challenges, including girls. Then we do get the traditional fight with Voldemort, and the thing ends. We're ready to move on to new dangers in book number six, "The Half-Blood Prince," where we get back to the main story line of the series.
Anyway, in "Order of the Phoenix" Harry knows that Voldemort is back on the move, but few people except Dumbledore and some broken-down old wizards believe him. The wizards, once members of the original Order of the Phoenix that formed to combat Voldemort years earlier, reassemble at Sirius Black's house to combat a new Voldemort threat, while Harry himself assembles a group of Hogwarts students (known as Dumbledore's Army) and teaches them magical self defense. Harry's friends encourage him to do this because the Ministry of Magic has just assigned Hogwarts a new teacher for the Defense Against the Dark Arts class, and being ultra politically correct, this new teacher refuses actually to teach them anything about defending themselves against the Dark Arts. Meanwhile, the idiot Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), refuses to accept that Voldemort is on the rise and does everything in his power to thwart the good intentions of the new Order as well as Harry and his followers.
The best thing about the film is that it has only a little over two hours to tell its story, which means the screenplay cut a good deal of padding from Rowling's book. Unfortunately, it still wasn't enough because "Order of the Phoenix" seems to go on forever. Yet, when it's finished, there is the lingering feeling that nothing has really happened.
The fact is that although the filmmakers infuse "Order of the Phoenix" with plenty of magic, there is little magic in the film itself. It's all so grim and dark, with hardly a sliver of the old humor, that it's more than a bit tiring. As a psychological character study, the new movie is head and shoulders beyond anything we've gotten yet from a "Potter" movie. But as fun time at the movies, the new "Potter" is a pretty merciless affair.
As I say, part of the problem is that the conflicts are almost all internal rather than external as in the past. Harry's mind torments him with visions of death, as well as a mysterious connection with the Dark Lord. Harry seems actually to see what Voldemort sees, and he doesn't understand why. So, we get to see Harry continuously having nightmares and waking up in a sweat, which isn't exactly the most uplifting way to enjoy a film.
Another part of the problem, though, stems from the very fact that the screenplay cuts down the book's story so much. With the good, we must accept the bad, which in this case means that while the movie retains most of the book's characters, most of them have hardly any screen time or anything to do. For instance, Helena Bonham Carter plays Bellatrix Lestrange, whom the Ministry locked up in Azkaban for many years and who finally escapes. But for what purpose? To do about two minutes of mischief? Natalia Tena comes in as Nymphadora Tonks and gets, as I remember it, about one line. And Evanna Lynch appears as Luna Lovegood, another outsider like Harry, a sympathetic character about whom we would like to know more. Do we get it? No time.
The old gang are also back, but with only a moment or two for themselves. Fiona Shaw and Richard Griffiths come and go quickly as the Dursleys, this time with no comeuppance. Ralph Fiennes is Lord Voldemort, seen mainly as a momentary caricature. Michael Gambon is Albus Dumbledore, scarcely showing his face until the very end. Gary Oldman is back as Harry's godfather, Sirius Black (and at least we can now see enough of Oldman to recognize this fine actor), the film truncating his part, too, as it does the scenes in his house. Brendan Gleeson and David Thewlis again play Mad-Eye Moody and Remus Lupin, although you'd hardly notice they were there. Jason Isaacs is Lucius Malfoy, evil as ever. Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith are Professors Snape and McGonagall, barely more than window dressing. Robbie Coltrane is Hagrid, even if he's gone missing for half the picture. Katie Leung is Cho Chang, seemingly there only for Harry to kiss. And so on. And, of course, the same young people are back, too, now looking a lot older: Emma Watson as the faithful Hermione, Rupert Grint as best-pal Ron, Bonnie Wright as Ron's sister Ginny, and Matthew Lewis as the woebegone Neville Longbottom.
Yet the movie's scene-stealer is newcomer Imelda Staunton as Hogwarts' latest teacher, Dolores Umbridge. Forget about Voldemort; Umbridge is the real villain of the piece. Indeed, she may be the best villain the series has ever had. Her character is deliciously evil in a smug, self-righteous way, meting out torturous punishment to anyone who crosses her, all the while believing that her teaching methods are for the good of the children. She's the sort of person who would kill her students in order to save them. Worse, she's a snitch for the Ministry of Magic and presents a second obstacle for Harry and his followers to overcome.
Still, it's hard to see exactly what they need to overcome, since we never see what Voldemort is really up to. As in the book, the film simply tells us that the Dark Lord seeks a secret prophecy hidden deep in the Ministry of Magic, a prophecy that only Harry can obtain. What it has to do with anything is something hard to decipher in the book, and in the movie, which compresses the idea further, it makes even less sense.
What's more, there are the forever unresolved questions: How is it that after all these years, Dudley (Harry Melling) is still too stupid to know that he shouldn't purposely provoke Harry? How is it that after years of trying to become human, Voldemort still can't produce a nose? (OK, my friend and colleague Eddie Feng reminds me he wants to look that way, like a snake. Fair enough.) And how is it that with all the magic in the world at his disposal, to say nothing of muggle contact lens and laser surgery, Harry still has to wear glasses?
Nevertheless, I quibble. The movie continues to offer much in the way of insight and character development, for Harry at least. After all, we get to see Harry's first kiss, and that ought to be worth something. Furthermore, the film has one of the sweetest, most-affecting closing sequences of any of the "Potter" movies thus far, not just emphasizing the power of friendship but the sheer power of love. And there are the delights of Hogwarts itself, with all its fascinating passageways and secret chambers. And there's the look of the movie's special effects, always first rate. And the motion picture's superb visual qualities--the sharpness of its details and the distinction of its colors--which one can enjoy on any level.
Warner Bros. have always lavished their best efforts on the picture and sound quality of the "Potter" series, and for "The Order of the Phoenix" they have done nothing less. The movie looks as good as almost anything I've seen in a live-action release.
The WB video engineers use a VC-1 encode and a dual-layer BD50 to reproduce the film on Blu-ray in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The picture displays superb object delineation and fine, realistic colors. With a perfectly clean screen, deep black levels, and a fine print grain to give the image a lifelike texture, "The Order of the Phoenix" achieves an order of excellence matched by few other optical discs at this resolution. The high-definition colors are rich and realistic, and detailing is as sharp as one could want. Moreover, the image is never glassy, glossy, or overbright, always remaining natural in appearance, with good clarity even in the most dimly lit scenes. OK, in a few opening shots in brilliant sunlight I thought facial hues were a mite too intense, but I assume this was a part of the director's intent because it doesn't happen again. Otherwise, I have nothing but praise.
Matching the disc's superior video quality, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound does everything one could expect of it. From the very beginning of the movie, the stereo spread, the dynamics, the impact, the surround information, and the bass make themselves manifestly apparent. When the massive stone doors open to the students' secret chamber at Hogwarts, you'll feel the walls of your home theater rumble and shake in sympathy (well, you will if you have a full surround system and a decent woofer; I don't know about your television speakers). Seldom do we find ourselves so totally immersed in the sound field as in this film. Although Rowling's story line did not particularly interest me this time out, its audiovisual presentation greatly impressed me.
Disc one of this two-disc "Ultimate Edition" box set is a Blu-ray containing the feature film and an "In-Movie Experience," which provides picture-in-picture inserts, a series of featurettes, and pop-up trivia to take you into the filmmaking and into the world of Harry Potter. The picture-in-picture inserts are of Dumbledore's Army, with the young cast members commenting on the film; twenty-eight "Focus Points" take you to brief featurettes about the making of the film; and the trivia track includes further text facts about the film. If you don't want to interrupt the movie with the "Focus Points," you can choose to watch them apart from the film, either individually (they're a few minutes each) or all at once in a sixty-odd-minute segment.
Disc one concludes with thirty-two scene selections; BD-Live access; English, French, German, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish spoken languages; French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles; and English and German captions for the hearing impaired.
The second disc is also a Blu-ray, this time a single-layer BD25, with more featurettes. The first and most important of these segments is the newly made "Creating the World of Harry Potter, Part 5: Evolution." It's about fifty-seven minutes long and deals with production design, costumes, filmmaking styles, and such on the entire "Potter" series, with comments from the various directors, filmmakers, stars, and author.
Following that are several more behind-the-scenes featurettes: "Behind the Magic," forty-six minutes; "Building the Magic: The Sets of Harry Potter," twenty minutes; "The Rebellion Begins," twenty-three minutes; and "Fulfilling a Prophesy," thirteen minutes. Then, there's "Trailing Tonks," nineteen minutes, in which we follow Natalia Tena, who plays Tonks, through a typical day on the "Potter" set. And after that there is an interactive segment, "Harry Potter: The Magic of Editing." After a five-minute introduction to film editing, you get to edit your own scene. You choose a camera angle, add music and sound effects to it, and watch it. Finally, we get nine unfinished additional scenes in high def; and both a teaser and a theatrical trailer.
Finally, because this is an "Ultimate Edition," there are the usual collectibles: a beautifully illustrated, forty-eight-page, hardbound book; an attractive lenticular picture; two limited-edition cards: Luna Lovegood and Dolores Umbridge; and instructions and code for a downloadable digital copy of the film. The whole shebang is enclosed in a handsomely embossed, hard-cardboard box further enclosed in a hard-cardboard slipcover (with the detachable lenticular picture on the cover).
Maybe I went into this film with a bias, not having liked Rowling's book very much. Guilty as charged. Yet it doesn't change my overall assessment that without a solid narrative, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is little more than a stepping-stone in the context of the "Potter" series as a whole. Fortunately, the movie looks and sounds great in high-definition picture and sound. And now that we've gotten this installment out of the way, we can get on to what is a much better proposition in episode six, "The Half-Blood Prince."