Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Ralph Fiennes
written by Michael Goldenberg and directed by David Yates
rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images.

With its 5th movie just released, Harry Potteris entering a rather elite group. Few film franchises in history have this many entries (or this many opportunities to screw up). Its first two entries stayed safe and close to the books (and the moderate length of the sources allowed for closer adaptations). They were not bold or outstanding, but neither were they bad.

The third movie saw the franchises first change of director (who seemingly, like Defense against the Dark Arts professors, ought to be changed every year), and Alfonso Cuaron brought a very fresh look and feel to the production. Producing a truly stand-out chapter, he seemed to see the potential of translating these stories into cinematic experiences in their own right rather than slavish visual facsimiles of the books.

The fourth was a sort of how-not-to guide of film adaptations, a feeble “good-parts” version that sacrificed coherence, flow and character development in favor of overblown visual effects sequences and ridiculous attempts at pop appeal. Its lone saving grace was a last-minute miracle of gravity and emotional power at the film’s climax that sets the stage for the series to “get serious” in its final chapters.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has a lot to overcome from the beginning. It is the shortest of the films and the longest of the books. The number of characters with names and personalities and roles to fill has grown beyond unwieldy for a film to handle. Even those with starring roles can be reduced to a bare 5-10 minutes of screen-time. And then there’s the matter of the story. At the end of Harry Potter 4, all-out warfare between good and evil wizards seems imminent. At the end of Harry Potter 5, the war is still imminent. To a lot of moviegoers, that looks like empty space.

These are significant problems, and Order of the Phoenixdoes not entirely overcome them. The cast is as strong as ever (newcomers and all), and the child actors have really matured to a level of excellence as performers. It’s too bad we hardly see the majority of the characters at all. A few, like Tonks, are introduced at the beginning and dismissed entirely for the remainder. One wonders at any screen-time being wasted on them at all if there is so little to go around.

On the other hand, it avoids some of the pitfalls of its predecessor. The story flows smoothly, quickly and with purpose. The visuals provide great spectacle without being too distracting or getting in the way. Yates successfully imitates some of the best elements of Potter 3 at crucial points.

A few complaints: Why change the look of the Dementors? It ruins internal consistency, as there is no apparent reason for their change in appearance. Plus, I don’t like the new look as much. Along the lines of limited screen-time, the amazing Alan Rickman (Snape) is really only given a single scene to call his own (although he does, of course, appear here and there elsewhere). I would have gladly sat through 20 to 30 more minutes of movie for a chance to see more of him and other characters. At least the next film should really give Snape a chance to shine. The movie also cuts short one of its most triumphant moments(the revenge of the Weasley twins), needlessly losing some of the best material from the book. Actually, this happens a few times. I don’t think it hurts the film, but it does hurt the adaptation.

A few praises: Dolores Umbridge is a magnificent villain, at times more chilling than Voldemort himself. Great performance. Luna Lovegood also stands out as an excellent incarnation of a great character. Whatever is happening on-screen packs an emotional punch. I felt completely caught up in just about everything that was going on at any given time. I cannot praise the final duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort highly enough. It is quite simply the best scene of its kind yet committed to film: a no-holds-barred magical brawl between two powerful spell-casters. It beats out the likes of Merlin and Madame Mim’s whimsical shape-changing duel from The Sword in the Stone and (especially) Gandalf and Saruman’s underwhelming telekinetic shoving match from The Lord of the Rings.

In this case, when Potter is good, he’s very, very good. And when he’s bad, he’s . . . not so very bad at all. This makes for a fun and satisfying trip to the theater that renews my hope for a franchise I felt might be crashing and burning after the last installment. And it was just what I needed to build my excitement about the imminent release of book seven to a fever pitch. Aside from that, there’s not much more to say. Harry Potter has won his fans and alienated his detractors already. Anyone aware of this movie probably knew before it was released whether they’d be seeing it or not.

~ by Jared on July 14, 2007.

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