I've been re-watching the entire Harry Potter series recently (thanks to Warner for putting out all the available titles in HD instead of just the latest one), and I find that half the fun is in watching everyone grow up. Rarely are films made yearly (or almost yearly) with a cast of kids and teenagers, allowing the audience to watch them get older on screen. It's endearing and a bit surprising to watch them back to back. But more than that, it's so interesting to watch the series evolve as films. The first two movies were annoyingly literal interpretations of the books, with Chris Columbus afraid to cut a single word and giving us overlong renditions of the two stories that are by far the least interesting of the seven. Then we got Alfonso Cuaron's inspired take on Prisoner of Azkaban, which actually viewed the piece as a film separate from its source material. To date, it's still the best of the films. Mike Newell proved that he didn't have it in him to follow up Cuaron, turning the best book of the series into a bumbling, awkward piece that couldn't hold a candle to the beautiful work of Azkaban.
This brings us to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The longest book of the seven becomes the shortest of the films to date, but it is by far the most accomplished since Azkaban. David Yates is no Cuaron, but his sense of economy is exactly what the movies needed after Newell's inability to effectively condense Goblet of Fire. In fact, Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg have distilled the essence of what made Order of the Phoenix click, resulting in a film that rolls along without worrying about the ancillary aspects of Harry's world. By now, the audience should be familiar enough with these aspects that Yates doesn't need to linger on them.
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is attending his fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy. But not all is rosy. Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned, and while Harry and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) understand the threat, the Ministry of Magic is determined to discredit them, going so far as to plant a teacher, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), to sow seeds of discord at the school. Harry, along with his perennial friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), now have to form a secret society to undermine Umbridge and convince the wizarding world that Voldemort is back--and a serious threat.
Order of the Phoenix doesn't dilly dally. The opening title shoots by, hardly pausing for to allow the audience to read it. Almost immediately, Harry is attacked by Dementors, which sets the tone for the film. Phoenix is dark, introducing several new characters, such as the deceptive Umbridge and the insane Death eater Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). The action is also unprecedented, with a level of tension and technical dexterity not seen in any of the previous installments.
But there's also a sense of camaraderie. In response to Umbridge's increasingly malevolent machinations, Harry, Ron, and Hermione form a group, dubbed "Dumbledore's Army," to fight back. In several inspiring sequences, Harry and his friends realize that they have what it takes to be great wizards. They understand that they can take control of their own destiny and leave their mark on the world, despite (or perhaps because of) their young age. These scenes effectively capture that exhilaration of youth exploring their abilities for the first time, and taking the first steps into becoming the people they want to be.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix puts the series right back where it needs to be: Focused squarely on Harry. While all of the films are about Harry, at times it felt like he was there to have people react to him. Harry's moods and personality is more deeply explored here, giving him some ambiguities that had not been present before, and all for the better. Of course, neither Ron nor Hermione are neglected, and several of the other characters get nods without pulling away from the story, especially Neville and Luna.
At this point, you're either a fan of Harry Potter or you're not. None of these movies can really work as standalone pieces, because they're entirely dependent on the audience knowing the characters, settings, and back story. But for those who have taken the ride this far, Order of the Phoenix has some of the best set pieces in the series, including any scene that takes place at the Ministry of Magic, and another great set of performances by a crew of Britain's most distinguished character actors (including Michael Gambon as the superior Dumbledore). Order of the Phoenix offers thrills, excitement, and a sense of anticipation for the next sequel: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Warner Bros. has released Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix simultaneously on Blu-ray and HD DVD. While WB has retained their standard practice of using the same video encode for both, while giving a Dolby True HD track to the HD DVD and a PCM mix to the Blu-ray (both are lossless, although there is word that WB uses dialogue equalization on its True HD tracks). The big difference is in the extras package. WB has optimized the special features to take advantage of the unique capabilities of each format. HD DVD currently has more interactivity, so that version gets web content and IME. Blu-ray has more space, so it gets more of its features in high definition.
Warner Bros. presents Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1 in a VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer. It seems like lately I've seen a slew of fantastic transfers from almost all the studios, and you think I'd become jaded about it. But I can't when WB is giving us transfers like we get for Order of the Phoenix. The depth and dimensionality of the picture is breathtaking. I've said it before, but it applies here: It's like you could reach in your hand and touch the characters. The fine details in all the hallways of Hogwarts and on the character's faces are immediately apparent. The colors pop out and overwhelm the senses, but never get pushed to the point of blooming or bleeding. As a critic, sometimes I feel that I'm giving out five star picture ratings like candy, and I wonder if I should be more harsh, but there's nothing here to attack. It's a testament to the work being done at the studios that we're getting so many excellent transfers, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a must-see.
While I've heard criticisms leveled at Warner Bros. for using dialogue equalization on their Dolby True HD tracks, don't expect any major differences between the HD DVD mix and the PCM on this Blu-ray. I've heard both the Dolby True HD 5.1 mix on the HD DVD and the uncompressed 48kHz/24-bit PCM 5.1 track on this Blu-ray, and they're both simply sublime aural experiences. The soundstage is alive from frame one, with the score almost ever present beneath the action, which is constant. The rears are always in use, either with ambient sounds or directional effects. And the aforementioned dialogue sounds flawless. The range of the mix is deeply satisfying, with plenty of bass and wonderful depth to all of the sounds. If you needed a disc for a new demo, this will fit the bill nicely. And if you simply want an excellent sound mix to complement the image, you're gonna get that, too.
Here's where things get interesting. The Blu-ray of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix does not contain several interactive and web features available on the HD DVD. But due to the increased space of the format, several of the features are presented in 1080p high definition.
- Focus Points: A series of short featurettes that collectively offer slightly over an hour of behind the scenes and making-of footage. These range from a look at effects shots (the Dementors sequence in particular has an especially interesting process behind it) to practical production concerns, a deeper look at the characters, themes, or just individual shots. Taken together, they give a fairly good picture, but the short length of each featurette gives it all a scattershot feel that prevents it from being comprehensive. On the Blu-ray, all of this footage is presented in 1080p high definition.
- Deleted Scenes: 10 minutes of deleted and extended scenes are offered, the best being the ones that include Emma Thompson. There are no major revelations here, but most of them are fun, if inconsequential, extensions. Only on the Blu-ray is this material offered in 1080p.
- Trailing Tonks: The lovely Natalia Tena, who plays Auror Nymphadora Tonks in the film, takes the audience on a tongue in cheek guided tour of the studio and sets for Order of the Phoenix. Clearly aimed more towards the younger crowd, as Natalia is overly jubilant most of the time. Still, we get a nice insider's look into what it takes to put a production on the level of a Harry Potter movie together. Again, the Blu-ray has the benefit of offering this feature in 1080p.
- The Magic of Editing: Beginning with a basic Editing 101 introduction by director David Yates and editor Mark Day, we soon get to play around with a sequence from the film. There's a collection of different shots, and you're given the chance to choose between them, rearrange them, choose a bit of the musical score, etc. This isn't the first time I've seen a feature like this, but it's still enjoyable. In standard definition.
- The Hidden Secrets of Harry Potter: Presented as some kind of documentary, this is essentially a 45 minute promotional piece to prepare audiences for the release of The Order of the Phoenix. Most of the footage is of interviews with the writers of those stupid bandwagon books that try and dissect popular series, while doing nothing but regurgitating the themes and plot devices more blatantly for ever easier consumption. It's especially silly as the authors are quick to pose several questions that, as any reader of the books knows, had no bearing on the series at all. Almost all the rest of the footage is clips from the previous films. This is the only feature not on the HD DVD. Also in standard definition.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the best film in the series since Alfonso Cuaron's brilliant entry, Prisoner of Azkaban. With tight pacing and thrilling execution, Order of the Phoenix propels Harry Potter's story forward with excitement and panache. The Blu-ray offers sparkling picture and tremendous sound, but is missing several key features only available on the HD DVD. If you have prefer to have the most content possible in 1080p, or do not own an HD DVD player, then this Blu-ray is the one for you. Highly Recommended.
Note: The images used in this review are not indicative of the image quality on the disc.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.