DVD/Blu-ray Review: “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Ultimate Edition”

The received wisdom was that the even-numbered entries in the pre-reboot Star Trek series were better than the odd-numbered ones. That held up, too, until the 10th and final one mothballed the Enterprise for seven years. No such problems with the Harry Potter series, which hits six with his to-do with the half-blood prince. They’re all pretty much of the same quality—the same, consistently uninteresting quality.

I’ve come not to praise Harry Potter, but with two installments (two!) of the seventh and final chapter to come there’s no use burying him until 2011. Mind you, I’m not entirely immune to his saga. If my daughter were older I’d relish a minimum 2.5-hour babysitter once a year. (Who says kids have short attention spans? A different story for this parent, who gets antsy at the first sight of the ritual Quidditch match.) That Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith are now household names among tweens is nothing to sneeze at, either, and Jim Broadbent is amusing in this one. But I’m pretty much a Muggle about it, maybe because I never cracked open one of the books, and maybe because I’m too old for this enchantment, whereas I grew up with Star Wars and was familiar with the Lord of the Rings trilogy from a young age.

A friend says I should at least find it interesting that the series gives us a set of young actors that we can watch growing up year in and year out. In real life, though, Harry has waved his, err, magic wand onstage (I saw it with my own eyes), Hermione has become a hottie, Ron survived swine flu, and they’re all college age. A lot happens in the movies yet nothing ever seems to touch them, and they learn the same lessons over and over again, as if Hogwarts was some sort of remedial school for slow-witted sorcerers. To be fair a certain, mildly self-deprecating self awareness has crept in, as when Ron, when asked why he and his mates are always in the thick of it, responds, “Believe me we’ve been asking ourselves the same thing for six years.” (Was that straight from the book, or a cry for help from the golden cage that adapter Steve Kloves, who once upon a time wrote and directed The Fabulous Baker Boys, has built for himself?)

Authorities tell me that this is the darkest of the films, and I won’t dispute that. A major character kicks the bucket, and Order of the Phoenix director David Yates clearly instructed cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie) to shoot the movie through a windshield thick with dead bugs. It’s hard to make out much through the murk, though if we could Yates would probably withhold it. A potentially breathtaking seascape that Harry and Dumbledore visit is on and off in the blink of an eye, and the action scenes, including the admittedly wild, and hope-raising, opener, are too brief…except for that damned Quidditch match, a game that hasn’t changed much since 2001 and the first movie.

Part of the fault may be with the standard DVD transfer, which looks as if Voldemort sicced Death Eaters on it. Even on my very forgiving set-up the Two-Disc Special Edition looked noisy and edge-enhanced, as if it were an afterthought in the push to Blu-ray. After giving up on the series in theaters I watched the fourth and fifth ones on DVD, and neither of them looked as obviously distressed. Harry and Dumbledore aren’t kidding in the photo; you’ll need a magic flashlight, too, to see what’s going on.

The not-so-special content on the second disc is mostly kids stuff, including a rundown on the cast and crew led by the actors who play Neville Longbottom and Dean Thomas, “one-minute drills” with the same actors on who their characters are and how they fit into the Potterverse, a none-too-revealing quiz segment with the performers, humdrum footage from the next adventure, and a shameless, empire-building plug for Universal Orlando’s upcoming Harry Potter theme park attraction. More interesting is a one-hour portrait of author J.K. Rowling, as she puts the finishing touches on the Deathly Hallows manuscript, amidst packs of Wrigley’s gum and lipstick-flecked cups of tea. It concludes with her returning to the flat where she sequestered herself to write the first, life-changing one, and her dazed reaction to finding three of the books among the current tenants’ possessions. For his creator, too, it’s Harry Potter’s world, and we just live in it. –Bob Cashill

Elsewhere in Potterville, Warner Bros. is issuing brick-shaped “Ultimate Edition” versions of the earlier films in the series. We were lucky enough to get our hands on the Blu-ray box for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and in terms of both presentation and contents, it lives up to its name — if you have a young Potter fanatic on your gift list, you can’t go wrong with this. For a lousy $30, you get five discs of goodies: the theatrical cut, the extended cut (13 minutes longer), an “in-movie experience” mode featuring all sorts of picture-in-picture gewgaws to go along with the film, and a long list of featurettes.

The second and third discs are where most of the added content lies; disappointingly, Disc 3 is a DVD, which might rub some consumers the wrong way even though most Blu-rays feature some manner of non-hi-def bonus material. Still, you get plenty of HD stuff to gape at, including gorgeous transfers of the theatrical and extended cuts, deleted scenes, trailers and TV spots, an HBO promo for the movie, an in-depth documentary about the creation of the characters’ on-screen counterparts, and screen test footage of the young and adorable Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint. (The DVD tacks on even more content, including a chat with J.K. Rowling and screenwriter Steve Kloves, more deleted scenes, production sketches, and tours of various Potter locales.)

But wait! There’s also a handsomely bound book (“Creating the Characters of Harry Potter“) and a pouch containing a digital copy of the film and a pair of character cards (our box came with Hagrid and Snape). Really, the only Blu-ray box with more heft this holiday season is the Mel Brooks Collection, and all things considered, you’re less likely to get in trouble for gifting a Potter flick than you are for passing along a package containing Blazing Saddles. –Jeff Giles

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