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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (HD DVD)
Warner Home Video / 2007 / 139 Minutes / Rated PG-13
Street Date: December 11, 2007
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Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Editor's Note: Non-format-specific portions of this review also appear in our Blu-ray review of 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.'
It's a strange phenomenon, but as J.K Rowling's Harry Potter books get longer, their film adaptations seem to get shorter. The longest of Rowling's tomes, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is 870 pages long, yet the movie version clocks in at sparse (by Potter flick standards) 139 minutes. The end result is a bit like finally getting to sneak into the grand library of Hogwarts, and only finding a stack full of Cliff's Notes.
Even at her most indulgent, Rowling has always maintained a keen appreciation for story, with each of the Harry Potter books functioning as a satisfying stand-alone adventure while also fitting snugly into a larger whole. But while 'Order of the Phoenix' hits all of the same narrative notes as Rowling's book, it doesn't sing the same tune. The story and character omissions are the most damaging of all of the Potter flicks so far, giving the film an at times perfunctory feel, as if we are witnessing only a stepping stone to the next movie and not a film that lives and breathes on its own. Make no mistake, 'Order of the Phoenix' is far from a terrible film -- there's plenty of magic and whimsy on hard, and there's still great pleasure to be had in watching Rowling's now-classic characters and setpieces come to life -- it just lacks the true engagement of its predecessors.
Given that so many have either read the book or seen the film, it hardly seems neccessary to recap the story but I'll give it the old college try. In 'Order of the Phoenix,' Lord Voldemort has returned, but few want to believe it. In fact, the Ministry of Magic is doing everything it can to keep the wizarding world from knowing the truth, including appointing Ministry official Dolores Umbridge as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts. When Professor Umbridge refuses to train her students in practical defensive magic, a select group of students decide to learn on their own. With Harry Potter as their leader, "Dumbledore's Army" meet secretly in a hidden room at Hogwarts to hone their wizarding skills in preparation for battle with the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters. Needless to say, a terrifying showdown between good and evil ensues.
I know it is said every time a new Harry Potter hits the big screen, but 'Order of the Phoenix' is truly the most dark and mature film in the series yet. As Harry has matured (with Daniel Radcliff evolving nicely as an actor), so too have Rowling's themes and concerns. The film's final 45 minutes in particular contain the harshest and most assaultive violence yet seen in the series. Yes, this is a still a PG-13 adventure, but it's clear that Rowling is playing for keeps, and it is 'Order of the Phoenix's best asset that there are real consequences to the actions in the film. Few "children's films" these days generate any real suspense, but 'Order of the Phoenix' does so in spades.
Unfortunately, the majority of the film still feels overloaded by the burden of simply advancing the story, rather than letting it soar. For much of the first half of the film, characters are given little to do but spout exposition. It doesn't help that Harry is so busy preparing for his quests and challenges that the kid doesn't seem to exist anymore as a flesh and blood teenager with emotions that are identifiable outside of what the plot requires. Indeed, one of the few scenes to generate any real affection is when Harry enjoys his first kiss with the cute Cho Chang (Katie Leung). How ironic is it that the most magical moment in all of 'Order of the Phoenix' comes only when Harry lays down his wand and actually acts like a... muggle?
Having said all that, I wouldn't dream of dissuading any Harry Potter fan from seeing 'Order of the Phoenix.' The film still gloriously realizes Rowling's universe, from the impeccably-designed interiors of Hogwarts Academy to the moviemakers' clear love for their native Britain, which looks positively radiant. The final 45 minutes are also legitimately exciting, with fantasy-action sequences that rival any 'Lord of the Rings' film, and the villainous Snapes and other creatures are truly something to behold. 'Order of the Phoenix' may lack the charming naivete of the early Potter films (and I can only hope that the final two entries in the series give the characters a bit more room to breathe), but as a stepping stone to the excitement that is still undoubtedly to come, 'Order of the Phoenix' will more than do.
'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' is certainly a flagship next-gen title for Warner. The film is debuting on both HD DVD and Blu-ray day-and-date with the standard DVD version, and though there are some notable differences in terms of audio and extras, the one area where both high-def editions match up is this 1080p/VC-1 encode (framed at the film's original 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio). Warner has certainly delivered the goods, and even with the startling number of reference-quality high-def titles I've reviewed in recent weeks, 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' easily stands tall, boasting yet another a five-star video presentation.
I've often used the term "picture window effect" in my reviews, but right from the film's opening sequence, 'Order of the Phoenix' boasts some of the most three-dimensional images I've yet seen on a next-gen title. This continues throughout the film, with the level of detail and depth to this HD DVD disc truly fantastic. Sharp, resplendent in fine texture and perfectly balanced in terms of balance and contrast, 'Order of the Phoenix' is absolutely top tier.
Of course, any 'Harry Potter' film is one of fantasy, and as such it's clear throughout that we are in a surreal and vibrant world. Colors are pushed to the max of saturation, but always stay one millimeter away from oversaturation. Hues remain rock solid and free of noise or other defects, so despite obvious skews in terms of color (blues and yellows are particularly accentuated), the presentation still feels surprisingly natural. Warner has also done a terrific job with compression, and I had no problems with any artifacts -- no edge enhancement, macroblocking or banding (even in heavily CGI'd sequences). Simply put, 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' is a stunner.
Warner has been much better recently with their support of high-res audio on the majority of their next-gen releases, and this HD DVD edition of 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' continues the trend with a stellar Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround mix (48kHz/24-bit). It's easily on par with the uncompressed PCM track on the Blu-ray -- in fact, any audible differences are so marginal it's a wash. Both rate as a sparkling sonic experience. (Note that the Blu-ray does outgun the HD DVD when it comes to foreign language options. Although this HD DVD edition contains only English, French and Spanish tracks and subtitles, the Blu-ray boasts over a dozen options in all.)
It's no surprise that Warner spared no expense in bringing the latest Harry Potter adventure to the big screen. This is the best sound design you're likely to hear this year -- bold, highly immersive and unflagging in its sustained aggressiveness. There are so many fantastic sequences that you can just pick a chapter for instant demo material (the film's final 45 minutes in particular are a true aural delight). The rear soundfield is alive throughout, with sounds bounding all around with a transparency that's as close to the movie theater as you're going to get. Minor ambiance is not ignored either, with quieter scenes boasting a palpable surround presence. Even a simple whoosh of Harry's wand is often accompanied by a delightful subtle wisp of sound in the rears.
All other aspects of the source are equally excellent. Integration of music, dialogue and effects is pitch-perfect. Even with so many younger actors (and their sometimes thick English accents), I made out every word without ever reaching for my remote's volume controls. The score (by Nicholas Hooper, subbing for John Williams) is also impressively dispersed, with the appropriate majestic quality. And although 'Order of the Phoenix' may not be the subwoofer juggernaut of a film like 'Transformers,' when bass is needed, believe me, you'll feel it. There is not one aspect of this mix that disappoints.
I've never been a huge fan of the supplement packages that Warner has put together for the Harry Potter films on DVD. They've always seemed malnourished, missing many of the features now standard to most home video releases (such as filmmaker commentaries and in-depth making-of featurettes). Sadly, the standard package of extras ported over from the standard DVD continues this trend, delivering a pretty slim assortment.
This is also where the two next-gen editions begin to vary, with some obvious (and some not so obvious) differences between the HD DVD/DVD combo and the Blu-ray. The biggest is that these features are formatted in only 480p/i/MPEG-2 video on the HD DVD, while the Blu-ray enjoys full 1080p/VC-1 encoding. Also missing from this HD DVD edition is a 44-minute TV special that appears on both the Blu-ray and standard-def DVD versions. Here's what HD DVD fans do get:
- Featurette: "Trailing Tonks" (SD, 19 minutes) - This one gets my vote for the best of the slim extras. Young actress Natalia Tena (Nymphadora Tonks in the film) is our guide, providing an intimate tour of Leavesden Studios, the production home for all five of the Harry Potter films. It's often fascinating to see the inner-workings of the site of so many famous films, and as the diminutive Tena bounces around from set to set, we also get to visit fellow cast and crew, seen in a rare, relaxed light. Though Tena herself can be a bit annoying at times, this is a unique
and rather excellent little extra.
- Interactive Feature: "The Magic of Editing" (SD) - At first, this appears to be a standard featurette -- director David Yates and editor Mark Day offer a 5-minute introduction to the art of film editing, which is very basic and obviously geared towards the younger set. However, the feature then leads to an actual interactive editing session. Here, you can select different shots from a single scene, arrange them in your own order, and polish the sound. Again, it's basic, but rather fun, and I suspect teens especially will get a kick out of it.
- Deleted Scenes (SD, 10 minutes) - This collection of odds and ends is edited together as one big lump. Sadly, most of the content is simply scene extensions or other run-on moments -- there are really no big cut scenes here for fans of the book. It's also worth nothing that very little of this material revolves around Harry or the other main characters; instead, it's dominated mostly by the older denizens of Hogwarts (including an impressive two-minute take of Emma Thompson going all-out in the name of slapstick comedy).
...and that's it for the standard extras. Sadly, there are no theatrical trailers included for any of the Harry Potter films, nor any other promotional materials (a still gallery with all of the film's many international posters would have been especially welcome).
Once again the two next-gen editions of 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' differ when it comes to high-def supplements. This time, the HD DVD version gets the edge, exclusively featuring one of Warner's In-Movie Experience picture-in-picture video commentaries, plus a trio of additional web-enabled features.
- In-Movie Experience (HD) - By now, most are probably familiar with Warner's "IME" tracks, which use the HD DVD format's picture-in-picture capabilities to offer true interactive video commentaries. 'Order of the Phoenix' is more diverse than usual in terms of its material, combining traditional PiP with additional elements. Activate the track, and you can view three sets of footage. The
first is a standard PiP commentary, featuring "Dumbledore's Army," aka a group of younger actors from the film, who pop up sporadically to add random (and often rambling) comments on the film. I can't say this is the most incisive ommentary I've ever heard, but younger fans will probably enjoy it. Also interspersed
throughout the film is pop-up trivia -- there's nothing here that will surprise even casual Harry Potter fans, but it's fun nonetheless. Finally, the IME track also branches off to a series of "Focus Points," which are a series of short making-of vignettes, described in detail below...
- Focus Points (HD, 63 minutes) - The only extra shared between both the HD DVD and Blu-ray versions, this is a collection of approximately 28 vignettes (1-3 minutes each) that each explore into a specific aspect of the film's production, covering much of the effects, but also key characters, locations and story themes. Taken as a whole, these go a long way toward offering a true documentary, at least compared to the lame set of standard extras. Also spiffy is that all of the Focus Points are presented entirely in 1080p/VC-1 video, and can
be accessed either as a stand-alone supplement or via the HD DVD's IME track.
Had the HD DVD only included the above extras, it would have been satisfying enough. But there are also a trio of additional web-enabled features that further distinguish 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' as truly cutting-edge when it comes tonext-gen interactivity.
- Live Community Screening - A true high-def first, this new feature allows multiple owners of the 'Order of the Phoenix' HD DVD to simultaneously watch the film via their own individual web-connected players.
Playback is controlled by a single "host" user, who initiates the
invitation-only viewing, and can control the film by pausing and playing the
feature on everyone else's machines. Participants can also text between their
remote devices, creating a virtual "live chat" environment while
they watch. Unfortunately, since 'Order of the Phoenix' has not yet streeted as I write this, I couldn't try out this feature as no one I know actually has the disc, but it
certainly looks cool.
- Share Your Favorite Scenes - Using Warner's standard HD DVD bookmarking function, you can assemble a list of your favorite scenes from the film, and share them with other registered users online.
- Downloadables - Since no Harry Potter experience would be complete without the hawking of products, here you can buy various downloadables,
including ringtones for your phone, and various desktop patterns and widgets.
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'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' is the most massive of J.K. Rowlings' tomes, and the compressed filmed adaptation seems to suffer as a result, often feeling more like a connective episode rather than a stand-alone film. Still, there's certainly enough magic, drama and action on hand to satisfy any Harry Potter fan.
As the first Warner domestic high-def 'Harry Potter' release to come our way for review, this HD DVD edition of 'Order of the Phoenix' is an excellent start, boasting exceptional video and audio. Even better for HD DVD fans, this next-gen edition of the flick exceeds its Blu-ray counterpart when it comes to high-def exclusives, boasting a unique In-Movie Experience track and several web-enabled features. Alas, all here is not perfect, with the Blu-ray version boasting a superior standard supplements package that features full 1080p video and a 44-minute TV special that didn't make cut on this HD DVD. Still, given the sheer amount of cutting-edge supplements produced specifically for HD DVD, this disc ultimately edges out its Blu-ray rival by half a point overall.
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