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The Phoenix and the Carpet
Reviewed by Jayme Lynn Blaschke, © 2005

Format: Movie
By:   Michael Kerrigan, director and E. Nesbit, author
Genre:   Family/fantasy
Released:   September 27, 2005 (DVD release)
Review Date:   December 12, 2005
Audience Rating:   Unrated
RevSF Rating:   6/10 (What Is This?)

At first glance, the DVD release of The Phoenix and the Carpet might appear to be a blatant attempt to cash in on Harry Potter and Narnia mania by dumping a similarly kid-themed fantasy onto the home entertainment market. How else to explain Miramax's johnny-come-lately release of this 1997 British television miniseries? Fortunately, the effort, directed by Michael Kerrigan and based upon the E. Nesbit novel of the same name, isn't drek. Although wildly uneven in places, it often manages to be downright charming.

Four adolescent siblings in Edwardian England manage to hatch — in the fireplace, naturally enough — the egg of a Phoenix. The Phoenix, portrayed by an animatronic muppet and voiced by David Suchet, is wonderfully self-absorbed and vain, and wastes no time informing the children how important and magical he is. He also observes in passing that the new carpet the children's parents have bought for the nursery is of the magical variety, able to grant three wishes per day. The children, to their credit, quickly come to an understanding of the Phoenix's prickly nature and use that to their advantage, flattering and praising him so that he reveals the secrets of the carpet and other mystical excitement. Adventure, as it so often does in these situations, ensues.

As to be expected with a miniseries, the story tends to be episodic in nature. In their first outing the children manage to burn through the carpet's three wishes within five minutes of lift-off, and find themselves trapped at the bottom of a ruined medieval tower (one which should be familiar to anyone who's seen the George Peppard World War I epic The Blue Max). Later, the children manage to get the Phoenix stolen by a gang of Oliver Twist-style urchins, who pawn the bird off at an exotic pet store.

On the rare occasion where their plans do manage to come off relatively hitch-free, the kids wind up on a south-seas island populated by black natives as stereotypical as any found in turn-of-the-century literature. We're talking bone-through-the-nose, unga bunga, throw-the-white-folk-into-the-dinner-pot natives here. Thankfully the ensuing years have dulled the impact of the stereotypes, and results aren't as offensively racist as they might be. Still, no sane observer in modern America (and modern Britain, one would hope) can watch these bizarre and absurd scenes and not help but wonder, "What were they thinking?" Sometimes faithfulness to the source material is not all that it's cracked up to be.

Fortunately, The Phoenix and the Carpet has relatively few missteps overall. The occasional cameos by the trollish magical muppet called the Psammead are delightfully strange, and the Phoenix's effort to experience British culture by visiting the theatre is disastrous in all the right ways. That the children are portrayed as real children — that is, greedy, squabbling and immature as often as they are caring, responsible and earnest — prevents the story from veering too far into saccharine territory. Supposedly, E. Nesbit didn't like children all that much, and wrote about them rather than for them. If that's the case, then the filmmakers channeled just enough of that cynicism to make the story more than tolerable for adult and kid alike.


What details? This is, without a doubt, one of the skimpiest DVDs ever produced, underlining the fact that Miramax was only out to make a quick buck in the family-fantasy genre. How bargain-basement is this disc? For starters, there isn't even a paper insert in the DVD case listing the chapter titles. On the disc itself, a trailer for Chicken Little is included as a special feature, and folks, if you've seen that computer animated mish-mash of pop-culture jokes in the theater, you'll know there's nothing special about it whatsoever.

Add to that other so-called "Special Features" such as closed captioning and chapter select, and you've got some of the most uninspiring extras ever assembled. Would a brief documentary or simple listing of E. Nesbit and her work be so hard to put together? Apparently so. That effort will have to wait for one of the other adaptations of The Phoenix and the Carpet to come to DVD. But I wouldn't hold my breath.

The Movie Itself: 6 out of 10

The DVD Features: 1 out of 10

RevolutionSF Fiction Editor Jayme Lynn Blaschke thinks The Blue Max could’ve been improved by liberal addition of magic carpets. Especially in Ursula Andress’ scenes.

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