Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix
directed by David Yates
(Warner Bros., 2007)

I probably could have gone my entire life without imagining a young Severus Snape having his trousers removed with the wave of a wand by Harry Potter's congenial (but long dead) father, James.

And yet, that scene -- wrenched from Snape's memory during a lesson on mental defenses with Harry -- was a much-needed moment of laughter in an otherwise dark and oppressive film.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I didn't enjoy Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth movie in the blockbuster series based on J.K. Rowling's record-setting novels about a young wizard-in-training in modern English society. But the dark tone made itself clear from the very first scene, when a surprise attack on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his vile cousin Dudley (Harry Melling) led to Harry's brief but entirely unjust expulsion from Hogwarts Academy.

There's a lot going on in this one, and much of it is unpleasant or unsettling -- from nightmares and unpleasant relatives to secret societies and a gathering of magical armies as wizards and witches fight over claims of the dread Lord (Tom?) Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Things get even worse for Harry and his classmates when Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) -- a battleship of a woman hidden beneath the facade of a pink puff pastry -- takes over as Hogwarts' new Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor, and she initiates a whole new regime of dissent and misery at the school.

There is no lack of spectacular imagery and wonderful special effects, but there's no question Order of the Phoenix lacks much of the joy and wonder of earlier films in the series. When things get a little frivolous while a group of students trains in secret, it's a much-needed break in the heavy mood. Even then, the joy is shortlived -- which is OK, because it felt a little forced.

Harry as always is supported by his closest friends and classmates, including Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) and Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), as well as Cho Chang (Katie Leung), Harry's first under-the-mistletoe crush, and Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), an overly fey new acquaintance. The faculty at Hogwarts, most of whom seem to be on Harry's side, are less helpful this time around; Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is uninspiring, Snape (Alan Rickman) is emasculated, Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith) is intimidated and Sybil Trelawney (Emma Thompson) is completely undone.

Order of the Phoenix is a desperate tale, intense and convoluted, with numerous scenes of torture and violence against children, a little bit of death and a visually amazing all-out wizards' duel. I will admit, I missed the lightheartedness that provided a framework for the darkness in earlier installments of the series, and I worried that maybe Potter was no longer entirely appropriate for younger viewers (like my daughter). Sure, it's rated PG-13, but just try keeping a determined 9-year-old away.

Alas, it's too much to hope that Harry Potter would forever maintain the boyish grin of delight he wore so often in the first couple of movies. Everyone has to grow up sometime, and it's time for Harry -- and all of his fans -- to shoulder a little more of the maturity one expects from someone who wields massive destructive power in his wand. Order of the Phoenix is, despite all its darkness, an excellent and exciting chapter in Potter's life -- and there are, after all, only two more to go.

review by
Tom Knapp

4 August 2007

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