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The Phoenix and The Carpet DVD Review

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Movie & DVD Details

Director: Michael Kerrigan

Cast: Ivan Berry (Robert), Charlotte Chinn (Jane), Jessica Fox (Anthea), Ben Simpson (Cyril), David Suchet (voice of the Phoenix), Lesley Dunlop (Eliza), Miriam Margoyles (Cook), Ian Keith (Father), Mary Waterhouse (Mother), Shaun Digwall (Burglar), Christopher Biggins (Mr. Tonks), Phillip Bird (Reverend Blenkinsop), Francis Wright (voice of the Psammead)

Original Airdates: November 16 - December 21, 1997 / Running Time: 93 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

1.33:1 Fullscreen, Dolby Stereo (English)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: September 27, 2005
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99
Black Keepcase

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Review by Renata Joy

Long before Harry Potter first arrived at Hogwarts or a place called Narnia was imagined, there was a time when women were demure and quiet, and the most popular output of children's literature served to create cardboard role models for the way young people should behave. Edith Nesbit was above such conventionality. She smoked, had frequent love affairs outside of her marriage, and wrote a number of marvelous books for juvenile audiences using the more androgynous pen name of E. Nesbit. The last feat is what is most important.
Her books (very different from the preferred literature of the time such as Elsie Dinsmore and Little Lord Fauntleroy) featured real children that were never particularly good, but certainly not troublemakers, who became involved in all sorts of extraordinary and/or magical entanglements. Creatively using this same plot in a number of ways, E. Nesbit succeeded in publishing a plethora of novels and short stories for children.

The Phoenix and the Carpet, published by Nesbit in 1904, was adapted into a miniseries by the BBC in 1997. The second in a trilogy of books, Phoenix was also the second that the BBC brought to the small screen with a script by Helen Cresswell. Its literary predecessor, Five Children and It, aired six years earlier, so it goes without saying that for this sequel (as some might call it), all of the lead roles have been recast, especially since the action in Phoenix is supposed to take place mere months after the first adventure came to a close. (Cresswell, who sadly passed away last week, previously followed up Five Children with an original creation in 1993 called The Return of the Psammead. It was retitled The Return of the Sand Fairy for American home video and is now being referred to as The Return of It for its Region 1 DVD debut next month.)

Does this look like the type of guy who would put an egg in a carpet? The young protagonists of the film enjoy their first magical carpet outing.

That having been set up, it is time to begin the story. Cyril, Jane, Robert, and Anthea, the four siblings (to make Five Children you must add the rarely seen baby of the family who goes by the name of "the Lamb") are bored, as children quite frequently are. As a result, they let off some fireworks inside the house and burn a hole in the nursery carpet. It is soon replaced by a new one, and as this is being rolled out onto the floor, out pops a rather unusual egg. The man who sold the carpet to the family wants nothing to do with the egg, so there is of course no other option than to keep the egg in the nursery. This is all good until one night the foursome decide to make some magic of their own, mostly by lighting a fire and drawing magic symbols on the floor. However, their fun is stopped short when they accidentally knock the egg into the fire.

Rather than becoming the hard-boiled treat you might have been expected, the egg hatches and a great fiery bird flies out. This is probably one of the worst special effect sequences found in the film, but considering that it was made for television in 1997, the visuals are still reasonably sound. Robert (who knocked the egg into the fire in the first place) immediately recognizes the bird (a fairly convincing puppet/audio-animatronic sort of thing) as a phoenix. We then learn that not only is Robert correct in his assumption, but that phoenixes are very vain creatures and react best when they have been buttered up a bit. We also learn that the carpet in which the egg was found is magical; all one has to do is wish to be somewhere, and the carpet will oblige.

With this bit of premise out of the way, the story is free to progress. As is the case with E. Nesbit's creations, the magic has specific rules, both which can and cannot be broken (or at least bent a little), and wishes do not always have the intended effect. A small sampling of the various events that ensue: an ill-tempered cook (played by Miriam Margoyles of Harry Potter and James and the Giant Peach fame) is transported to a desert island where she becomes queen of its inhabitants, the Phoenix gets captured and put up for sale under the pretenses that it is some form of exotic parrot, and a vast amount of Persian kittens appear inside a room in the protagonists' house alongside a cow equipped with a burglar to milk it. Throw in a few visits to the magical creature of the previous film, a little hairy thing called a Psammead (pronounced "sammyadd", or you may just want to call it the Sand Fairy), and you've got yourself one adventure after another. The general product of these occurrences is the perfect mixture of British wit and eccentricity, both of which are characteristic of an E. Nesbit composition.

Oh no! The Phoenix has been locked up in a cage! Got milk?

Those who have read any number of titles in Nesbit's large catalogue of children's books can describe her imaginative style as nothing less than charming. The most appealing feature of her stories is that they center around a group of very likeable children with whom it is easy to relate, despite their simplistic natures that reflect the century-long gap between today and when they were first created.
The four lead actors in this particular version are exactly as they should be - believable in their acting but not overly theatrical, and cute, but not sickeningly so. They are exactly what E. Nesbit wrote them to be - plain, ordinary youths who are just interesting enough to have something exciting happen to them.

Rather than being a film driven by a single plot, The Phoenix and the Carpet is more along the lines of a series of adventures within the confines of a minimal frame story. Appropriately enough, this BBC production maintained the general episodic nature of E. Nesbit's books; apparently, it was originally shown in six half-hour installments on consecutive Sunday afternoons. (This emulated the tactic the channel took in 1976 with its first six-episode series adapted from the same text.) This DVD release by Miramax is presented as a 93-minute feature film. While there are no noticeable signs of editing or even the brief commercial blackouts that normally accompany a made-for-TV work (BBC has none), what is on the DVD presumably represents only slightly more than half the length of the original television run. Even when allowing for the removal of components no longer needed like recaps and both opening and closing credits surrounding each episode, it is distressing and hard to believe (but seemingly certain) that over an hour has been trimmed. Although there is no evidence of what exactly has been edited (or for what reasons) and the production does works very well in this movie format, the breadth of this realization (keep in mind that the missing content could account for roughly three television episodes) makes the viewer all the more thirsty for additional adventures featuring the mischievous four (five, including the Lamb, of course).

The Psammead and the Phoenix chat it up over some tea and sand (sans the tea). Hey, who let the bird in the theatre?

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Phoenix and the Carpet is presented in 1:33:1 (some might call that fullscreen), and it is likely, though not entirely certain that this is the intended aspect ratio. Eight years have not had any mentionable effect on the picture quality. The transfer shows no apparent flaws or excessive softness which sometimes accompanies made-for-television output. There are a number of darker scenes during the course of the film, but this seems to be intentional lighting and not any fault of the digital staff, as is the case in opposite scenes such as the ones which portray the fiery outburst of the Phoenix.

The film is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo Sound, which means that the Miramax Family opening logo features all the surround sound you'll be getting on this disc. Nonetheless, the dialogue comes through just as clear as is necessary, and the delightful score catches enough attention to be appreciated, while at the same time not overpowering the onscreen action. The caterwauling of 199 Persian cats was realistic enough to cause alarm in one feline viewer.

Only on a tropical island could a nice-looking burglar and a crotchety cook fall in love. "The Phoenix & the Carpet" Main Menu

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and DESIGN

The Phoenix and the Carpet comes as a barebones presentation, which is unfortunate considering the high quality of the film itself. Even the least amount of supplemental features, such as a short featurette or some minor T.V. spots would have been appreciated over the nothing which is offered here. The disc opens with previews for Chicken Little, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, Bionicle 3: Web of Shadows, and lastly, Power Rangers SPD Volumes 4 & 5. The Sneak Peeks menu also offers previews for My Scene Goes Hollywood: The Movie, Tarzan: "Special" Edition, and Kronk's New Groove ("No, that's not it"). The main menu is not animated nor does it feature music. It merely displays the silhouettes of the four main characters and their pal bird against a flaming backdrop.

Robert and Althea mourn the footage that has been cut out for the DVD presentation. The Phoenix would like to extend his thanks to everyone for reading the review. Cheerio!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

If more made-for-TV and/or direct-to-video productions were made with the same standards that were obviously in effect when bringing E. Nesbit's classic The Phoenix and the Carpet to life, the medium would not looked upon with such distaste as it typically is. The film succeeds in part because of Nesbit's ability to weave charming tales and also for the reason that it stayed very true to the author's timeless approach. The only criticism that can be given about this particular version is that it appears to have been taken to the cutting room, its probable 180 minutes having been chopped down to a mere 93. Even so, whatever slicing that has been done is not noticeable at all; in fact, it is even hard to figure out where the editing may have occurred. Despite this issue and the complete lack of bonus features, The Phoenix and the Carpet merits a wholehearted recommendation, especially for those who enjoy a good British fantasy.

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Reviewed October 6, 2005.