It’s gotten to the point where the quality of the films don’t really matter: Now I feel like I’m committed to the whole Harry Potter series. I’ve reviewed the first five now, so by golly, I’m going to stick it out and finish the lot… even though I still can’t bring myself to read any of the books. As always, consider yourself warned that I don’t know the intricate backstory developed over thousands of pages in J.K. Rowling’s writing. And really, I’m happy to keep it that way.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix continues in the tradition of following another year at the Hogwarts School of Wizardry, where Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has faced nothing but grueling struggle after grueling struggle. His most recent year (Goblet of Fire) saw a friend get killed by his nemesis, the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who’s gaining more power every day and giving Harry severe nightmares. With few exceptions, his friends have largely abandoned him, and the new term comes with even more headaches in the form of Dolores Umbridge (the perfect Imelda Staunton), sent from the Ministry of Magic to teach the defense from the dark arts class and eventually taking over the school as an iron-fisted, fun-crushing bureaucrat.
After much pottering about (ha ha!), the film finally finds its groove as Umbridge goes too far, refusing to teach magic in the classroom, instead preferring to rely on theoretical knowledge so the students can pass their year-end standardized tests. With Voldemort approaching (this guy is always just around the corner), Harry becomes more nervous that he will be unable to defend himself, finally recruiting a handful of students to his cause to teach them what he knows about magical combat. Together they prepare for the day when they know they’ll have to use those skills. (In case you haven’t seen any of the first four movies, rest assured it isn’t far off: This end-of-movie showdown between Harry and the forces of evil has almost become a cliché that pans out every single time.)
Order of the Phoenix is a famously thick book, so plenty of side plots abound, including a brief foray into Harry’s love life, the scatterbrained newcomer Luna Lovegood (a solid Evanna Lynch), and the titular Order of the Phoenix, a secret society that’s sparring with the Ministry of Magic, which denies that Voldemort is on the rise again. I’m told by my wife that myriad threads of the book are cut out completely. Most notably, there’s no quidditch in this movie at all.
Phoenix finds Potter on the cusp of adulthood, but the film that should be taking him out of adolescence is too sloppy and haphazard to do his story the justice it requires. Director David Yates stabs at plotlines with a ham fist, leaving loose threads and giving numerous new characters a shot to deliver one or two lines, then banishing them from the picture. Other characters, like Luna, fare much better: It feels like she’s got more screen time than Harry’s pals Ron and Hermione combined. They probably could have been absent from the movie altogether and no one would have noticed.
Yates, whose most noteworthy credit to date is the made-for-TV movie The Girl in the Café, seems awfully out of his element here. The special effects are some of the worst in the series (a bit with a giant is terrible, and the scenes of wizards on their brooms are badly green-screened), and the lack of action in the first half of the film is incredibly misguided. Watching the fidgeting in the theater as people wait for something, anything, to happen in hour #1 of Phoenix is almost painful.
Eventually, and not a moment too soon, Yates finds his footing when the young wizards and witches begin their self-imposed training, and he almost makes a telling point about the ineffectiveness of today’s school system along the way. But really it feels like Yates is delivering a bridge of a movie that is mostly killing time before the final two films arrive in 2008 and 2010(!). Aside from one character’s death (I’m told he’s important in the books, but he’s barely registered in the films) and the open acceptance that Voldemort is indeed back, nothing much has changed by the end of Phoenix. You could practically skip straight from #4 to #6 and not really have missed anything.
Phoenix largely plays out, more so than its predecessors, as a race to its grand finale, a series of battles fought in the Ministry of Magic, with both Potter’s kiddie friends and Dumbledore himself. The effects, so weak in the beginning of the movie, are at their best here in the conclusion, with enough lighting, water, and fire strewn about to raze a small city. The movie’s ultimately worth watching for the finish alone.
As for Mr. Potter himself, Radcliffe is showing remarkable growth as an actor, and he helps make even the dullest parts of Phoenix worth watching. The series continues to attract some of Britain’s finest actors, as well. In addition to Staunton, Helena Bonham Carter makes a juicy but late appearance as one of Voldemort’s henchmen. Now just recruit Peter O’Toole and Judi Dench and you’ve pretty much got the whole country in the series.
Phoenix isn’t the worst in the Potter series to date, but it can’t hold a candle to the superior fourth installment. As a way to kill time before the ballyhooed final novel arrives in a couple of weeks, it’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon, but even in a summer of uncommonly weak blockbusters, casual fans can probably find more thrilling ways to spend two hours.