Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The situation has become Harry...

The brilliance of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is its ability to maintain a sense of wonder and whimsy even as its main characters face ever-darkening challenges and enemies. After all, even when there is evil afoot, we are seeing it through the eyes of teenagers who are dealing with the every day ins and outs of attending school and struggling for that ultimate prize of adulthood. No matter how scary things can get for them, we are supposed to feel a sense of awe and glee when kids manage to triumph over adversity. Those of us who have followed the adventures of Harry Potter and his friends, either through the novels or through the previous four films, understand this feeling, have felt drawn into this "world within a world" dynamic, and have made these stories ones that will endure for generations to come. If you are expecting to feel any of these things after viewing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, however, you may feel a tinge of disappointment.

Harry Potter, and his friends Ron and Hermione, enter their fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry quite a bit differently. At the end of the previous film, Potter faced and survived an encounter with the freshly-returned Dark Wizard to Rule Them All, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes is back in feisty form). The problem is, Harry is the only one who was witness to this battle, and although the school's headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) believes Harry, the wizarding world at large is in a massive state of denial, particularly the head of the wizard government, Cornelius Fudge.

In response, a secret society of rebellious wizards and witches has been formed, The Order of the Phoenix, to try and build an army against Voldemort's growing forces. A lot of familiar faces from the previous films resurface, among them Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), and Harry's godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). The Ministry of Magic is determined to keep Harry and Dumbledore silenced about Voldemort, however, and they install one of their own bureaucrats to oversee the running of Hogwarts and make sure that students aren't being improperly influenced to go against the Ministry's official statements. This person is none other than Dolores Umbridge, played with a sweetly sadistic air by Imelda Staunton, who employs methods most cruel and unusual in attempting to keep a reign on the students and their teachers.

Indeed, the performances here are great, particularly by Staunton who plays her role with a poisonous congeniality that makes you want to kick her teeth in, and the performances by our three main stars, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, strengthen with every film. Harry Potter after year upon year of trials, has become a brooding, intense, disgruntled teenager, a world apart from the smiling, goggling child from the first films. His transformation is powerful and believable. The production values here are stellar, with CGI effects that have never looked prettier flying off the end of a wand. The overall look of the film is also a marvel, with a darkness that is both frightening and gorgeous to behold.

The problems enter with the film's pacing. Previously, these movies have been criticized for being a little on the long side. David Yates, with his first time at the helm of a Potter film, has seen to it to trim things down a bit. The novel of Order of the Phoenix was over 800 pages long. The film version runs around 138 minutes, making it easily the shortest of the series. With this stripping-down of plot points and characterization comes a feeling of being rushed from scene to scene. The veterans of the previous films, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and Robbie Coltrane, have disappointingly been reduced to bit parts. Other elements of school life at Hogwarts have also been eliminated. Eventually we begin to wonder if these kids are actually in school. The final battle in the film at the Ministry of Magic is a technical masterpiece, but the suspense was not properly built-up, so that when things finally do begin to happen, they have little impact.

The Order of the Phoenix would have been better had it actually gotten the Peter Jackson treatment. Audiences can withstand a long movie, provided it is written and directed in such a way as to make time cease to exist, and another 30 minutes just might have made the difference between a mediocre film and a great one. David Yates is set already to direct Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, due out next year, and I implore him to take his time with this one, and allow the viewer to be immersed in and savor this world and all of its charms and idiosyncrasies. He might want to begin by watching Harry Potter and The Prizoner of Azkaban to get a better idea of how to master this feat. Yates attempted to cram an entire world into a pillbox, and even though it might have made studio executives happy, it is a disappointment to the fans. Spells were flying a'plenty in The Order of the Phoenix, but the film was ultimately short on actual magic.

Gouda's Final Grade: B-