It’s of no news to anyone that the Harry Potter franchise has been one of the biggest in recent history, rising from book to film in no time. The films were produced at such a rate that they nearly overshot the book releases, with over half the series already on DVD before the seventh and final year hit bookshelves. With the Order of the Phoenix and The Deathly Hallows arriving in theaters and bookstores within weeks of one another, 2007 proved to be the greatest year that the franchise had faced. Before it’s closing, however, Warner Home Video is pushing out Order of the Phoenix, just in time for the holiday season.

Perhaps the most exciting of the series, Order of the Phoenix takes the Potter world to a darker place, with the dark magic’s finally creeping out more into the open with Voldemort’s return. Attempting to convince the world that he’s not just trying to garner publicity, Potter is put up against insurmountable odds, with the Ministry of Magic swearing that Voldemort hasn’t returned and even appointing a new teacher, Dolores Umbridge, as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, in a move to squash the “army” that they fear Dumbledore is building. With this turn of events, Harry begins training fellow students at Hogwarts the ways of defending themselves against the Dark Arts in an attempt to prepare them for the upcoming and inevitable onslaught that Voldemort has planned for the wizard and muggle worlds.

The longest in the series, this film had an unbelievably short run time of barely two hours and twenty minutes. Having only read the book once when it came out, my memory of what was left out is a bit fuzzy, but one thing is for sure: the angst that Harry constantly let out in the book was almost entirely cut out of this film, instead making Harry just consistently vigilant and rarely letting himself have a pleasant moment. In fact, there’s a montage of “happy” moments that Harry’s experienced and by the large most are culled from previous films, with only one being from Phoenix. Not entirely surprising, however, as Order of the Phoenix is quite the dark book and the film rarely lets up. It can’t afford to, after all, as even with two hours these stories are much too compacted as is.

That’s always been the main problem I’ve had with the Potter films. Not that they leave so much out of the books, that’s to be expected, but that so much of it is pushed along so rapidly it often feels like a very quick summary of the book, trimming the fat and leaving in the exciting and notable parts. As with Prisoner of Azkaban, I feel that Order of the Phoenix is just a trailer for the book, as so much is left out. It’s just too quickly paced and leaves no room for audience error: either you’re on board from start to finish or you get lost rapidly along the way. Plenty of times I had to refer to friends who had a better memory of the novel than I did so I could figure out what was going on. Perhaps the books are too fresh in the memory of the public still that the script writers feel they can leave out elements of the story because the majority of those viewing this film will have already read the original novel. I doubt that this is always the case, however, as there are some nice moments where we get to enjoy our characters; for the most part, however, we see more of the background characters in the special features area than we do in the film itself.

Despite its rapid pace and ability to easily confuse the viewer with its relentless rate of progression, I did greatly enjoy the film. In fact, it was the first Potter that I actually felt satisfied with at the end. I’ve never had much of an affinity for child actors, so maybe that’s why I didn’t like the previous films too much; not that the cast couldn’t act, there are just few children I can truly believe as actors. The flashbacks to previous films, particularly Sorcerer’s Stone, even brought about these feelings once again. With the actors now older, it’s easier for me to swallow that someone at that age would know how to act in situations that these characters are put in. When they’re in a book and all you have is your imagination to create them, they immediately become acceptable because they are what you make them to be; when others visions are forced upon you, it becomes difficult to accept it, no matter how valid the portrayal may be. With Order of the Phoenix, it was the first time I actually felt comfortable with the actors in their roles.

The big deal with Order of the Phoenix was the death of Sirius; it almost seems a waste to have cast the brilliant Gary Oldman in the role, as his time in the films was so sparse that it’s a shame to have him go so soon. His death in the film also has no impact; aside from the dramatic montage of faint sound effects swallowed up by haunting music, Lestrange’s (Helena Bonham Carter) quick and sudden kill shot is so random that it’s difficult to take in. I was actually quite looking forward to it, but something about it was just off; it wasn’t that I knew it was coming (I’d actually completely forgotten Lestrange killed him), it just…I can’t really explain it. It didn’t feel right and I didn’t feel any emotion, not that the film stopped at any point to let the viewer feel any. Harry’s confrontation of Lestrange is quick and to the point, so we can see Dumbledore and Voldemort face off and in the context of the film only, and not the book where Sirius’s role was much more profound, his death seems like no big deal.

While on the topic of the Dumbledore/Voldemort fight, I must say I was greatly impressed by it all. The spells being cast, the special effects used to bring them to life and just the overall execution of it all was brilliant. The Order of the Phoenix’s fight against the Death Eaters was equally as impressive and really was quite possibly the best moment in all of the films so far. It was wonderfully executed and I actually let my mouth hang agape as the wizards flew and flung themselves around the room. Quite a visual treat.

The newcomers to the cast, the aforementioned Carter as Lestrange and also Natalia Tena as Nymphadora Tonks, were superbly cast. Carter’s Lestrange was pitch perfect and I had never imagined her quite as wicked as Carter lets her be in the film—quite an awesome portrayal. Tonks limited screen time is also well used, showcasing her talent as a witch, as well as her power. Everyone else’s parts were severely downscaled, leaving Ron and Hermione often in the distance and poor Neville is rarely seen at all. Harry’s relationship with Cho Chang is breezed by and very few of the Death Eaters make up much of a physical threat.

With the last two films, the only John Williams we’ve gotten is the main theme that’s we’ve been hearing since the trailers for the first film. While the Goblet of Fire soundtrack didn’t stick out much to me when I watched it, Order of the Phoenix had quite a few distinct musical notes that I enjoyed throughout the film. Umbridge’s theme, both playful and dark, was a treat and the music during the final portions of the film with the wizard fights was especially epic feeling. A very nice soundtrack, one I won’t soon forget.

There were a few elements of green screen/CGI work in the film that was noticeably awkward looking, especially the opening scene with Harry at the play ground. The green screen work stood out like a sore thumb, but what that failed at the ending more than made up for with the plethora of wand effects. Overall, however, the film was satisfactory, as long as you pay attention and keep up with its pace. For those that read the book they’ll know what’s going on, but other viewers may need some help keeping up—the film packs 870 pages of story into two hours and thirty-nine minutes and has very few stops for breathers. Recommended.

For this review I’ll be covering the two-disc edition of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Single disc DVD as well as HD-DVD and Blu-Ray versions are also available. The DVD arrives in a standard two-disc amaray case with a reflective foil slip cover, which is quite eye catching. Inside are advertisements for Potter merchandise and the authorization code to play the included digital copies of Order of the Phoenix (more on that later). Disc art features heroes on the first disc and the villains on the second. Menus for both discs are simple and easy to navigate.

Video and audio on this DVD is what you’d expect it to be: pristine and clear. Audio comes in a solid Dolby 5.1 (also available in French and Spanish 5.1 as well) track that packs more than its fair share of punches. The raiding of the Dumbledoore’s Army hideout was particularly booming, even to the point where I had to get up and adjust the sound levels on my sub. Video was clean throughout as well, devoid of any real nasty compression and artifacting.

The first disc of the set holds no special features (not even a commentary), so we’ll skip straight to the second disc. A few additional scenes are given here, most of which feature Professor Trelawney. The first deleted scene is actually the most humorous, with the camera focusing on Trelawney during Umbridge’s opening speech ; Trelawney does nothing but make a mess of her dinner plate and ends up spilling it on herself and smearing her hands with some sort of ricotta cheese. I can’t recall if this was in the book at all but this scene was a delight to watch. There’s a note that the ADR hadn’t been completed on these deleted scenes but they all looked and sounded great to me, with the quality being up to par with the film itself.

“The Hidden Secrets of Harry Potter” is the longest extra on this set, running near forty minutes and covering all of the movies and the clues hidden in each that brought Harry to this point in his life. The stories told through clips from the films and interviews with cast, crew and other people related to the Potter universe. It’s a nice refresher course, but considering this is all we really get in terms of “behind the scenes” on Order of the Phoenix, it’s kind of a disappointment. They really should’ve saved this for the final film.

“Trailing Tonks” follows Natalia Tena on one of her days on the Potter set. We get taken around to sound stages, sound editing, wand training and even her trailer (where she plays a Christmas song she wrote—utterly random, but entertaining all the same). The featurette is an entertaining watch, even though it does tend to talk down to the viewer at times (since its audience is largely children, this isn’t a surprise), it’s still enjoyable.

“Harry Potter; The Magic of Editing” wraps up our special features with director David Yates and editor Mark Day Snow showing us how good editing can make a scene work. They take us through several examples in the film and the featurette ends with a little tool where you can mix and switch camera angles around for the wand training sequence with Dumbledoore’s Army; a neat little extra, although it’s a bit difficult to get it to work properly with a DVD remote at first.

The final “bonus” of this set is the inclusion of digital copies of the film. While this isn’t the first DVD release that’s done this (Fox’s Live Free or Die Hard contained digital copies), it is the first title I’ve had the chance to play around with them on. The files are in DRM protected WMV format and come in a PC and mobile version. The PC version, of course, has a higher bit rate and file size (953mb), while the mobile version is made to fit a bit cozier (589mb) on those smaller size drives. Neither copy is particularly clear; a lot of the film is smoothed over and pixilated, but hey—at least they’re including these copies now. Having to enter your authorization code every time on a new PC to access the files is a bit of a drag, but it’s a lot easier than ripping the DVD yourself and converting your own copy. Then again if your device doesn’t support DRM’d .WMV’s, and then you’ll be out of luck anyway. I’m surprised there is no iPod version included (it’s even specifically mentioned on the slip cover’s sticker that it won’t work with Apple devices), but perhaps that’s due to licensing issues. Hopefully we’ll see more variants of these digital copies on the discs. I had originally figured you downloaded the files, but it turns out there on the DVD itself.

Overall a solid two-disc release for an enjoyable film. I’m a bit disappointed by the lack of commentary, as it would’ve made up for the lack of the “making-of” type of documentary. I complain that they’re redundant extras when they are on DVDs, but when they aren’t I complain anyway. I’m not happy either way, I guess. Still, a commentary would have made up for all of that—really disappointed they couldn’t at least throw one of those on here. Recommended

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix arrives on DVD, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray on December 11th.

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