Thursday, July 12, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix / *** (PG-13)

Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliff
Hermione Granger: Emma Watson
Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint
Dolores Umbridge: Imelda Staunton
Luna Lovegood: Evanna Lynch
Neville Longbottm: Matthew Lewis
Ginny Weasley: Bonnie Wright
Sirius Black: Gary Oldman
Albus Dumbledor: Michael Gambon
Lucius Malfoy: Jason Isaacs
Severus Snape: Alan Rickman
Bellatrix Lestrange: Helena Bonham Carter
Lord Voldemort: Ralph Fiennes

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by David Yates. Written by Michael Goldenberg, based on the book by J.K. Rowling. Running time: 138 min. Rated PG-13 (for fantasy violence and frightening images).

“Based on the book…” This phrase can be such a difficult burden for a movie to carry; especially for such a popular literary phenomenon as J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. And in the frenzy of the controversy that surrounds this popular series of films and books (including such troublesome questions as: “Are the actors getting too old for their parts?”, “Will the latest book really be the last?”, “Will releasing the final book just after the latest film increase sales for both?” and, of course, “Is Harry going to die?”) it can become easy to loose track of the simple entertainment involved in watching the movie.

I’ve never gotten too caught up in the “Harry Potter” phenomenon and never expected too much in advance. However, I’ve been quite pleasantly surprised by the engaging nature of the films and the thrill of their adventure. Most importantly, I have avoided reading the books before seeing the films. I don’t feel this is a requirement for every movie adapted from a book, but Rowling’s series of books have developed such an intricate mythology within them that no movie can possibly encompass all of the delights she has created in her world of wizards and wonders—not without the running times jumping as exponentially as the page counts.

The fifth film in the series, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”, comes from the longest book in the series up to this point, and yet clocks in three minutes shorter than any of the previous films. Of course, to fans of the books this means some serious editing down from the source material. For someone who hasn’t read the book, it means simply another adventure at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

As the picture opens, Harry (Daniel Radcliff) finds himself under trial for breaking the law against casting spells in the presence of a muggle (a normal human) as a minor. The Ministry of Magic has launched a smear campaign against Harry and the Headmaster of Hogwarts School, Prof. Albus Dumbledor (Michael Gambon, “Amazing Grace”), for their claims that the dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, “The Constant Gardner”) has returned from the dead. In their efforts to discredit Harry and Dumbledor, the Ministry assigns a liaison to the school, Dolores Umbridge, in the much maligned teaching position for Defense Against the Dark Arts. Umbridge is delightfully portrayed by one time Oscar nominee Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”).

The film acts as a reunion of sorts for characters from the previous films. Many of the good wizards have gathered with concern over the possible reemergence of Voldemort, including Harry’s godfather and frequent scapegoat for the Ministry of Magic, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, “Batman Begins”). Sirius tells Harry of a secret order of wizards that formed to attempt to defeat Voldemort the last time he rose to power, known as the Order of the Phoenix.

While it is nice to see so many of these talented adult British performers reprise their roles, however briefly, it is the teen heroes who take the forefront in this adventure. The Ministry of Magic soon manipulates Dumbledor out of his headmaster position at Hogwarts, and with the encouragement of his two best friends, Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), Harry decides to form his own Order of the Phoenix to train young wizards in Dark Arts Defense in preparation for Voldemort’s uprising.

Joining our heroes in their group are the ever present Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), Ron’s younger sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright), and newcomer Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), who seems to be vying for Harry’s heart along with Cho Chang (Katie Leung) despite her odd nature. But which one will betray Harry?

However, the heroes aren’t the only side bolstered by new blood. Voldemort liberates Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) from Azkaban Prison to help Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs, “Friends with Money”) retrieve an important tool to use against Harry.

Wow! Did that exhaust you too?

I’ve heard rumblings from some fans that the story was so chopped down in the film that it’s incomprehensible, but as someone who hasn’t read the book, I didn’t have any problem keeping up with the plot. In fact, I found the third film installment, “Prisoner of Azkaban”, to be much harder to follow than this one.

Still others have said that this film isn’t as spirited as the others, and I will admit that it lacks some spark that the previous films contained; however, this one is dealing with far more complex emotions. Gone is that impression of wonderment from Harry. In its place are feelings of dread, doubt and despair. As a teenager, everything becomes more serious, and even joyful events, such as a first kiss, can be clouded with confusion and misconception. This series has always done a wonderful job of portraying the age of its main characters accurately, with a great awareness of the emotional changes they are going through.

“The Order of the Phoenix” is probably the weakest film in the series so far, but it is still entertaining and enlightening in respect to its heroes’ emotional growth. The ongoing story of Harry’s battle with Lord Voldemort is as engaging as it ever was, and the filmmakers continue to do a fine job capturing the scope and imagination of Rowling’s mythological universe. And so, I remain a mild-mannered fan.

Buy it: Harry Potter books & dvds

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