July 12, 2007

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (PG-13)
Harry Potter fights The Man (as personified by the Ministry of Magic and its Hogwarts-embedded scold Dolores Umbridge) as well as the strengthening forces of Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a fun number five in this seven-part series.

The fact that book number seven comes out on July 21 but movie number seven potentially won’t hit theaters until 2010 could make movie six, slated for 2008, particularly fillerish (these dates according to Internet Movie Database so, don’t buy tickets yet or anything). Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the book had a stalling-for-time feel about it that had me skimming through some chapters. In movie six’s favor, however, is this movie. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has more fun with its adventure, its characters and its rebellious elements than I remember having when I read the book.

Movie four (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) ended with the return of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and the death of Cedric Diggory right in front of a traumatized Harry (Daniel Radcliffe). As Phoenix begins, Harry feels isolated, sad and scared at the horrible Dursley house, cut off from news of the magic world. After Dementors attack him and his cousin (Harry Melling), Harry is expelled from Hogwarts because he illegally used magic to fend them off. Luckily, a band of rebellious Hogwarts teachers and other Friends of Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) rescue Harry and help him fight the expulsion.

But Hogwarts has become a tenser place this school year. Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) doesn’t believe (or is refusing to believe) Voldemort is back. He sees Dumbledore’s alarm as a form of rebellion and sends in Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Stauton) to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts and to spy on the school. Dressed in pink and full of Orwellian mind-control intentions, Umbridge — who looks like a sort of a sadistic Mary Kay lady — teaches to an ancient and useless text and, in No Wizard Left Behind fashion, prepares students not for battle but to pass their tests.

Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) know this kind of half-measure approach to their ability to defend themselves isn’t good enough. They, along with previously skittery Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), the strange Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), the stalwart Ginny (Bonnie Wright) and other Hogwarts students, form what they call Dumbledore’s Army, with Harry as their combat teacher.

This leadership doesn’t sit entirely well with Harry. He’s still angry and frustrated from his last meeting with Voldemort and his subsequent isolation by Dumbledore. He misses his still-in-hiding godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). He still has feelings for Cho (Katie Leung), who still misses Cedric. And he’s having strange dreams about what the freed and on-the-loose Voldemort is doing — dreams which, terrifyingly, put Harry inside Voldemort’s head, suggesting that the Dark Lord might be able to do the same to Harry.

There are shades of the war on terror in the ministry’s wrongheaded and ineffectual attempts to squelch a threat and more violence and darkness in the wizard-versus-wizard themes. Put that together with the continued transformation of our main characters into teens and you’ve got a story that has a lot more going for it than the kiddie adventures of the series’ first two films. The new characters also add some color — Luna is as moony as her name implies but she offers up a refreshingly different shade of oddball; new villain Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) adds some lunacy to the evil of Voldemort and his Death Eaters.

The Order of the Phoenix is better than Goblet of Fire but not as good as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third movie in the series. That one, directed by Children of Men’s Alfonso Cuaron, remains the most fully fleshed out of the Harry Potters. In everything from the camera movements to the inter-character relationships, Azkaban shows how a skilled director can add to an established series.

Here, we have solid efforts if not brilliant work. There are built-in flaws to any fiction movie where most of the fans know not only the ending but what happens an episode away. The Order of the Phoenix is not a great enough movie to transcend these weaknesses but it doesn’t fall apart because of them either. In fact, I think this movie (and perhaps all of the Harry Potter movies) fixes some of the weaknesses in the books.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix keeps the story moving and doesn’t let the characters or the action feel stale. It is a good kid adventure (older kid — definitely heed those PG-13 ratings) even if it doesn’t take that extra step to become a great movie. B

Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images. Directed by David Yates and written by Michael Goldenberg from J.K. Rowling’s novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a two hours and 18 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Warner Bros.