I have never read a Harry Potter novel. Not a single one. I've never even flipped through one in a bookstore or library. This fact has drawn gasps from a legion of Potter-philes or whatever they call themselves, and yet I don't see this reality changing. With that said, however, I've greatly enjoyed each instalment in the film franchise and found myself eagerly skipping into the theatre to see this latest adventure The Order Of The Phoenix.
Now, before I dive in, my earlier declaration is both a warning and a promise regarding the content of this review. Most of the critiques I've read spend most of the time detailing how well the film echoes the book. I will not be going into this. I'll be focussing on how the film works, and how it fits with its predecessors. So, no, I won't be complaining about the excising of any Pockolumps or Hing-dinglers or whatever from the original text. This review is for those who have simply seen the movies (Once or twice as opposed to exhaustively) and wanna know if this one is any good.
H'Okay, moving on. Potter 5 opens with young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) saving himself and his piggish cousin from a pair of Dementors in his hometown in England. This is a no-no, and soon he is up on charges of unlawful use of magic from the Ministry of Magic, who refute the young wizard's insistence that Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned. This development brings his uncle Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) into the picture, in the process revealing the titular order, a small army united to battle Voldemort. Discovering that friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ronald Weasley (Rupert Grint) are also included leads Harry to feel seriously alone. When he goes before the Ministry he is saved by mentor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) at the last minute, although the Ministry quickly installs their own Dolores Jane Umbridge (Imelda Staunton - left with Smith and Emma Thompson) as the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hoggwarts. Umbridge quickly takes over the school, revealing her own inner-fascist in the process, and is soon tormenting the students and teachers alike while suppressing the use of magic within the school. In the meantime, Harry, suffering nightmarish visions brought on by Voldemort, secretly bands together a collective group of students together to form an army to battle the dark lord. The film climaxes with the collective storming the Ministry of Magic's headquarters in search of an invaluable prophecy, and Voldemort making another important appearance.
Yeesh. Attempting to paraphrase the plot of this film in a paragraph is rough, and I'm sure any Potter die hard who's gotten this far is shaking with anger over my slipshod summarizing. Let's just say that a lot happens in The Order Of The Phoenix, and my little recount is mere lip service to the greater themes of the actual film.
Okay, now that the messiness is behind us, how is the actual movie? Well, it's absolutely delightful... Until the third act. New director David Yates, while not the auteur that Alfonso Cuaron (Prisoner Of Azkaban) or Mike Newell (Goblet Of Fire) are, is extremely good in handling the material surrounding the day-to-day adventures at Hoggwarts. These passages can often drag a film down, as with Goblet Of Fire and Philosopher's Stone, which both felt over-stuffed and meandering. Yates and new writer Michael Goldenberg gives these scenes a light touch that makes them extremely entertaining and endlessly absorbing. In particular, Miss Umbridge's hostile takeover of Hoggwarts is perhaps the juiciest, and most fun, middle section of perhaps any of the films.
If the film had ended with this section I would have been applauding and announcing it as the greatest Potter film yet. Unfortunately, however, the third act of the film is a fairly uninteresting lump of nonsense. The battle within the Ministry of Magic, where Harry and Co. battle an army of armoured dudes led by the evil Lucius Malfroy (Jason Isaacs) is visually unspectacular and choppy. The bad guys have no real identity and so the battle has little dramatic weight. We never really feel any of the children is truly in danger. I also have to say that, for me, a little wand-fighting goes a loooooong way. The climax features far too many scenes of people knocking each other off their feet with blasts of light, only to have them get up with little or no injury. I've always been a tad confused by these scenes through all the films, as the wands seem to do little more that knock people over or stun them. When one key character is apparently killed during the battle, we don't really understand why, as there is no build-up and little pay-off.
Similarly, Voldemort's big final appearance is as dull as his reveal in Goblet Of Fire. He hisses a lot and makes a lot of vague threats/taunts about coming to the dark side, Harry being too weak, killing all his loved ones, etc. It's like a lesser version of the Darth Vader/Luke battle in The Empire Strikes Back. Frankly, Voldemort (Right) is far more interesting when he is silent. There is a scene that is repeated throughout the film of him standing at a train station in a black suit that is mesmerizingly spooky. Ralph Fiennes gives him a sinister physicality and the briefness of the scene makes it far more frightening. Once he shows up delivering platitudes and threats he becomes a second-tier monster. I'm crossing my fingers that he sticks to the sidelines in the next film.
One other area that the film stumbles is in the effects department. I've always found the film's somewhat hit-and-miss in their CG and Order Of The Phoenix is no exception. The smaller stuff all looks great, Hoggwarts continues to amaze and the world itself is flawless. But whenever there is a big effects moment the results are often hokey. There is an ogre/giant character that looks about as realistic as Shrek. By having him stand next to human characters, his lacklustre rendering is only further emphasized. This is also the case in an important moment featuring centaurs. The final battle scenes are also iffy, with a whole lot of blurring. I also feel I should mention that almost every scene featuring characters flying on brooms fail to even meet the realism of the speeder bike chase from Return Of The Jedi (Made 24 years ago!!!). To be fair however, the dragon-horse things look pretty nifty.
The actors continue to do wonderful jobs, never faltering, and always fully inhabiting their characters. Sadly, Watson and Grint (Right) are sidelined as Harry takes centre stage, although both actors continue to charm. Daniel Radcliffe definitely seems to be growing as an actor, and meets every challenge here admirably. The real joy for me, though, is the Hoggwarts teachers. As in each instalment, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, etc. continue to endlessly entertain and inject a mature (yet playful) energy that really elevates this franchise to something brilliant. Most of all however, hat off to Imelda Staunton who creates the most boo-able villain of the summer. Her Miss Umbridge, like the demonic bastard sister of Kathy Bates Annie in Misery, is so cheerfully hateful that she blows the generic Voldemort clear off the screen. She steals every scene she's in and, if the Academy were more open-minded, would be a shoe-in for an Oscar nod. I didn't think anyone could top Kenneth Branaugh's Professor Lockhart in Chamber Of Secrets, but Staunton does. Gary Oldman, as Sirius Black is also a joy to watch. Oldman, often prone to playing unapproachable nut jobs projects a real sense of warmth here that is more than welcome. I also have to give special notice to Helena Bonham Carter. Her Bellatrix Lestrange, who is given a crackerjack introduction, is somewhat underdeveloped here but Bonham Carter (Channelling the bride of Frankenstein???) never fails to go gleefully over the top. Also, young Evanna Lynch, as Harry's odd classmate Luna Lovegood gives a truly winning performance and manages to find some real moments of truth that are the most moving moments in the film.
So, I suppose the inevitable question is where does The Order Of The Phoenix place amongst the other films? Unfortunately I have to place it at the bottom of list due to the wildly unsuccessful third act. Like Spider-Man 3, there is a lot of great stuff that get's hampered down by a number of weaknesses. It is important to mention, however, that like the James Bond films, even a lesser Potter film is still far more entertaining than the average blockbuster. These films have a consistency that is refreshing given the fallibility of film franchises these days, and for maybe the first time ever I walked out of a Potter movie eager for the next one. In a summer that has been dominated by impersonal mediocrity, this trip to Hoggwarts feels like a breath of fresh air. Let's just hope that next time the results are a little better.
3.5 out of 5