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Published: Wednesday, 7/11/2007

Movie review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ***

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

There is a scene close to the beginning of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in which Harry must appear before a tribunal to explain his unauthorized use of magic.

As he disembarks from the "elevator," Harry is astounded by the sheer numbers of witches and wizards, elves and half-humans, and by the sights and sounds of the Ministry of Magic. It is a fascinating parallel to the scene in the first film when Harry enters Diagon Alley, his introduction to the street of shops that provides goods and services to the wizarding world.

But the tones could not be more different. The first film was filled with a sense of wonder and possibility; this one with foreboding.

Harry is facing the very real threat of the return of the evil wizard, Lord Voldemort. He's doing it while the government and the press conduct a campaign to smear his credibility. He's suffering from the trauma of having seen Lord Voldemort casually kill one of his classmates (in the previous film, Goblet of Fire). He seems to have lost the support of Dumbledore, the head of his school. And he's 15, suspended between boyhood and manhood, with all the angst that goes with adolescence.

For those who aren't fans of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix won't make much sense.

If Rowling presumes her readers will remember details from previous books, director David Yates dispenses with them. Phoenix, at 138 minutes, is the shortest of the five Potter films, and it's based on the longest (800-plus pages) book.

This is one of the trade-offs of the film. Yates has chosen to tell a fairly straightforward story about the physical and emotional attacks on Harry and the growth of evil. It works quite well, in that those who are familiar with the Potter universe will follow what's going on, and the build-up toward the climax is logical and inexorable.

But by dispensing with almost all of the details and subplots, Yates has lost many opportunities to ease the sense of doom with some humor or lighter scenes, which, ironically, would make the foreboding even deeper when it does come back.

The movie opens with Harry and his cruel cousin, Dudley, being attacked by dementors, and Harry must use magic to defeat them. This causes him to be hauled off to wizard's court on charges of the unauthorized use of magic in front of a Muggle (a human who has no magic), and only Dumbledore's intervention brings about an acquittal. It is here that Harry's sense of isolation gets a real jolt, when Dumbledore refuses to talk to him.

It is also here that Harry gets his first glimpse of Dolores Jane Umbridge, a ministry undersecretary. Dressed in pink ruffled suits with velvet bows in her hair, she spews the anti-Potter party line with a girlish giggle. To Harry's disbelief, Umbridge becomes his Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwart's Academy, where she announces that learning theory is plenty for the children in her care; there will be no actual practice in magic.

Harry and his friends are astounded, then are determined to practice on their own, which is distinctly against one of Umbridge's rules. By now it's apparent that the despised teacher has the backing of the ministry, and she has become the Grand Inquisitor, out to destroy anyone who's against her.

One of the big assets of the Harry Potter movies is that the movie's continuing characters, with one exception, have been played by the same actors, led by the juvenile trio of Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron, and Emma Watson as Hermione. We've gotten to watch them grow and change over the course of the films, and they've made the transition from amateurs to solid performers.

The adults in the film are among the cream of British acting, from Michael Gambon, who took over the role of Dumbledore when Richard Harris died, to Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, Robbie Coltrane, and David Thewlis. Unfortunately, they have very little to do in Phoenix, which is a big disappointment, considering that most of them are members of the anti-Voldemort Order of the Phoenix.

Balancing that are the strengths of three newcomers: Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge, whose perky faade camouflages a malicious cruelty; Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood, Harry's schoolmate who is the butt of many jokes but who understands him like few do, and Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, one of Voldemort's allies whose brief appearance in this movie gives us a hint of what's in store in future films.

The special effects are generally top-notch. I could tell that a giant was computer-generated, but broom-flying sequences sure looked real, as did the battle at the end.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has a lot going for it, but in my mind, more would have been better. More interaction with the adults, more humor, more sequences with Harry teaching his friends magic.

The Harry Potter directors just can't win. Chris Columbus was criticized by critics for making the first two films carbon copies of the books. Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell were criticized by Potter fans for choosing to emphasize their artistic vision over the source material. I'm criticizing Yates for ignoring all the delicious details of Phoenix.

So who wins? The viewers do, because we can go back and reread Rowling's books and wait for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which will, I'll wager, come with its own set of joys and criticisms.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.com or 419-724-6130.



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