‘Harry Potter,’ as a story on film, turned 20 on November 14th, 2021. In 2007, This world felt like it was living, and now, on 4K Ultra HD with High Dynamic Range, I’m continuing to revisit this fantasy to see whether it lives beyond the real-world problems surrounding it and explore how we might, as consumers, change the way we think about sharing stories that matter to us.
“Order of the Phoenix” opens on a somber note through titles that will become progressively aged and grayed through to the end of the series, then there is a fleeting glimpse of an orb before we meet Harry Potter, alone and traumatized. This chapter stands alone through a combination of direction, writing, and the nature of the story. We’ve followed Harry as our avatar as he grew into his own character in adventures populated by a magical world and distinctive characters, but “Phoenix” is about his demons, his legacy, his family history, his romance with Cho Chang, his mind, his loneliness, and what sets him apart from the world around him. This movie, more than any other, could’ve simply been titled “Harry Potter.”
A few visual notes, David Yates took over as director in this entry and has helmed each installment all the way to the yet-to-be-released “Secrets of Dumbledore.” He takes a character-centric approach that feels like a blend of the classical camerawork of the Columbus films and the special effects showcasing artistry of “Azkaban” and “Goblet.” As a result, the characters feel like primary focus while small details of the magical world reveal a striking faithfulness to the source material without impacting the pace of the story being told. A mix of wide and flat lenses serve the writing though, as a result, even the most spectacular visuals feel somewhat dulled in impact.
Then there’s the blue. Yates has noted color grading each of his installments to darker, muted tones reflecting the prevailing threat of evil in their world, but with a 4K resolution, and the higher range of color tones, the blue grading bleeds over all other colors. There are moments, such as the family Christmas gathering, where other colors pop, but the significant thematic pink coloring in the production design, meant to help reinforce the function of Professor Dolores Umbridge as a character, now appears in shades of lavender or are somewhat softened.
The upgrade of “Phoenix” seems to have been less involved, with a digital artifact appearing over Bellatrix’s face to brighten her against shadow when she first meets Harry, her mouth still not moving before her close up when calling him , “itty, bitty, baby Potter,” and film grain only seeming apparent when digitally added to help blend 2006/07 era special effects into the tangible people and artifacts of a shot. The image quality varies noticeably on a large screen but for a casual viewer you’d still not escape the overcast, blue color grading.
The score echoes more of the emotional-weight-carrying function of John Williams’ music, and his themes are present, but most themes and songs invoke a somber, thoughtful tone, with the Weasley’s firework display serving in contrast. The music is also used to keep an even pace to the film, picking up to carry the viewer through changing seasons, montages of training, the romp of Umbridge’s presence through the school, or to score traveling between locations with a sense of mild adventure. The audio in every other sense is sharp and articulate, with the climactic duel between Albus Dumbledore and Voldemort ensuing with almost no music beneath glass, fire, water, and the snap of each spell cast from a wand.
This climax is the highlight and payoff that I feel makes this entry work so well. In the movie we’re introduced to Imelda Staunton’s pitch-perfect Professor Umbridge, Evanna Lynch as a wistful but endearing Luna Lovegood, Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange, and Natalia Tena’s Nymphadora Tonks (a character who is significant in terms of what this story has to say about identity). We’re reintroduced to Brendan Gleeson’s “Mad-eye” Moody, Remus Lupin, the Weasley family (including Percy Weasley who continues a minor arc that can be tracked across the movies for sharp-eyed fans), and all Hogwarts professors. Michael Gambon continues to play Dumbledore with empathy, making significant use of his time on screen in playing a world-wearied-wizard. Alan Rickman begins to become a point of focus after his role as Severus Snape has varied and his past has been teased, and he plays his resentment and the uncertainty of his loyalties well.
Then there’s Gary Oldman’s return as Sirius Black, who wrings so much emotion out of his character’s loss and hopefulness and care for Harry that, by the time he accidentally calls Harry “James,” the impact of his death is earned.
It’s his words that sit with Harry and give a thread lays between “good” and “bad” in this world. “…the part we choose to act on, that’s who we really are.” Whatever J.K. Rowling intended, she’s crafted a story that includes all the complexities of morality and self-doubt that one experiences when “coming of age.” This story communicates through the rebelliousness of its heroes, and the resentment of a lack of “purity” and a “right” way of living as a wizard that seeps from its villains, that there isn’t an easily definable “truth” to nearly anything socially constructed. It’s familiar to many blockbuster franchises that a hero is defined by his choices, but it’s not so often grafted into their identity, and I think that’s what makes it so hard to see the story’s creator act in condemnation of people struggling with their own identity.
“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” funnel’s the viewer into the isolation felt by Harry until it’s climax, where Harry is reminded by one of his closest friends that maybe he doesn’t, “have to do it all by (him) self.” The ending is a celebration of the world built before this story and if readers of this article can explore lending copies, buying second-hand (assuming not from an illegal vendor), and sharing with those who may be interested (streaming parties, etc.), this movie stands on its own and can introduce even new viewers to the world (the function of Harry’s family, Hogwarts, the Ministry of Magic, even the nicknames of the generation of Harry’s parents are all re-established). I would recommend seeing this on Blu-ray, unfortunately, unless you care more about resolution than color or contrast.
(This series is intended to review the Harry Potter movies as pieces resulting from collaborations between artists and commercial stakeholders. If you’re still grappling with your relationship to this fandom, I welcome you to explore many supportive sources of information online (Particularly Lindsay Ellis’ commentary on “death of the author” and Ms. Rowling’s platform: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NViZYL-U8s0)
You can also read more about the study that claimed reading ‘Harry Potter’ reduces prejudice here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201505/does-reading-harry-potter-books-reduce-prejudice)