FILM REVIEW: HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX
By Michael Phillips
Tribune Movie Critic
He's back, and he's hacked off. The most striking aspect of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is its contrast between the hormonally and supernaturally tormented teenager at its center and the modestly well-made and easygoing picture unfolding all around him.
No. 5 in the omnipresent global franchise, "Order of the Phoenix" lies at a no-nonsense halfway point between the best of the Potter films ("Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban") and the most impersonal ("Sorcerer's Stone," which made just under a billion dollars worldwide). Though some of the large-scale effects settle for the familiar, the young actors guiding the ongoing J.K. Rowling magic act keep our human interest. We have watched these young actors grow up on-screen, and somewhere along the way Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint - Harry, Hermione and Ron to millions - turned into increasingly assured, slightly older young actors.
I had no particular affection for the first two pictures, the ones directed by Chris Columbus, which played and felt like hyper-protective producers' films as opposed to an imaginative director's. Once those were out of the way, though, the Potter series became freer to allow each installment some stylistic breathing room, within Rowling's parameters and the relative universe governed by a global fan base not keen on surprises.
Directed by Potter newcomer David Yates, whose résumé includes the piquant HBO romance "The Girl in the Cafe," "Order of the Phoenix" cares little about bringing newcomers up to speed. Nor is the film trying to be the biggest dog on the block. It's gratifying to see a summer picture whose primary impulse is not to destroy the audience, even as Rowling's story line nearly destroys Harry by subjecting him to a fate worse than Voldemort: teen angst.
Harry describes himself as "so angry, all the time," miserable at home, fighting against his darker impulses, struggling to act on his better instincts. Thanks to Daniel Radcliffe, who turns 18 later this month and seems ready for a hardy career once all seven Potter books have been filmed - already he has appeared nude in the West End revival of "Equus" - our hero's "Look Back in Anger" phase carries genuine feeling.
Rowling's owlishly charismatic hero is returning to Hogwarts for his fifth year. Straight off he's nearly expelled for "underage sorcery" while on Muggle turf, brought on by an attack of two soul-sucking Dementors working for the other side. Headmaster Dumbledore helps sort it out and gets Harry off the hook, but Hogwarts quickly enters a dubious new phase under the stewardship of Prof. Umbridge, who has no patience with non-traditional curriculum and implements a "Ministry-approved" set of rules and regulations. The title refers to the shadowy Order of the Phoenix, in which Harry's godfather Sirius Black is a member and whose collective eye is on Voldemort's inevitable return.
The Potter series has been a reliable employer of half the character actors in England, and one of the chief assets here is Imelda Staunton as Umbridge. Her manner of evil - officious efficiency dressed in various shades of pink - reminds audiences there is more than one way to get a laugh while striking a threatening chord. Forced into action, Harry and his pals Hermione and Ron recruit their classmates to join them in "Dumbledore's Army," training for a showdown with Voldemort and his slithery allies including Helena Bonham Carter, whom no one can accuse of underplaying.
Oddly the action climax can be accused of underplaying. The wand-zapping battle is a climax in name only; this is the sequence, about 20 minutes in length, that is being shown in 3-D at IMAX theaters. I suspect 3-D will help. Working from Michael Goldenberg's screenplay, director Yates is more at home with scenes depending on a subtler interweave of live-action and digital concerns. My favorite is an old-fashioned training montage, in which Harry, Hermione and Ron develop their fighting skills. The scene has a nice shape and rhythm to it, and unlike John Williams' music for the first three "Harry Potters," composer Nicholas Cooper opts not to compete with the amazements on screen.
The big wows are familiar, but the visual details pack the frame tightly with eccentric crosscurrents of the world as we know it and the non-Muggles land of wizardry. In other words, a particularly menacing character may display her decorative china emblazoned with cat pictures on her wall, but the meowing cats are actually meowing, and moving, and acting like real cats.
It's clear by now that Radcliffe, Watson and Grint were terrific casting choices, though this time Grint has little to do. The same is true for various Hogwarts faculty members played by Emma Thompson, Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman. That's the way it goes with a series such as this one: New characters come along, crowding the old ones, and something has to give. The shortest of the five Potter films so far, "Order of the Phoenix" is destined to be remembered as the one that handed the screen Harry his first kiss. Like much of the film, the smooch comes and goes briskly, without a lot of fuss.
"How was it?" Harry is asked. Answer: "Wet."
"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"
Directed by David Yates; screenplay by Michael Goldenberg; photographed by Slawomir Idziak; edited by Mark Day; music by Nicholas Hooper; production design by Stuart Craig; produced by David Heyman and David Barron. A Warner Bros. Pictures release. Running time: 2:18. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images).
Harry Potter - Daniel Radcliffe
Ron Weasley - Rupert Grint
Hermione Granger - Emma Watson
Dolores Umbridge - Imelda Staunton
Albus Dumbledore - Michael Gambon
Sirius Black - Gary Oldman