Monday, July 11, 2011

From the Vault: Order of the Phoenix

Here are my original reviews of all the movies in the Harry Potter series. My review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 will publish here by Thursday.

In his previous films Harry Potter was growing up. Now he matures. There’s a difference, you know. And it can be seen as clear as a dragon’s sneeze in a lightless cave here in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by far the best of the Potter film series to date.

Before Order of the Phoenix Harry Potter wasn’t really a character. He was a cause and everyone else was an effect. And even characters on the peripheral had more interesting things to do and say. Hermione was the studious nerd, Ron Weasely was the dopey well-meaning friend, dark horse Draco Malfoy was the villain-in-the-making school bully — Potter was the cup of vanilla to their chocolate-dipped rainbow sherbet. He was no leader, no expert magician, no free-thinking hero on a landscape of evil. He was just there, occupying space and riding the coattails of better magicians. 

All that ends now. In Order of the Phoenix he becomes the great magician we have been told for five movies he would become. Better yet, he performs magic. He doesn’t just recite lines from a book, either; he is a magician. And not just in theory. Yep, that’s Potter fighting side by side with Sirius Black against the forces of evil, that’s him blasting sonic waves from his wand, that’s him cauterizing some serious spells across the faces of Voldemort’s minions. And I saved the best for last: somewhere between Goblet of Fire and now, Potter found a barber and chopped off that silly do. Look, he has ears!

After Goblet’s bloodletting on poor ol’ Cedric Diggory, Harry Potter returns to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardy with a low-pressure system hanging ominously over his head. The other students are convinced he was involved in Diggory’s death thanks to some yellow journalism at the magician rag The Daily Prophet, which also claims Lord Voldemort’s rumored return is a big hoax perpetrated by Potter and Hogwarts’ headmaster Albus Dumbledore. To top it all off, the Ministry of Magic is mounting a case against Harry for his justified use of magic in the presence of non-wizards (Muggles) after two Death-like creatures try to suck his soul from his nostrils (clinical name: soulectomy). In other words, the world is growing dark for Harry and his fellow young magicians. Fear is in the air, double-crossers are lurking in all the shadows, and word of Voldemort’s increasing power is driving everyone batty.

The mood may be oh-so-gothic, but it has its advantages: for the first time in the series, the major pieces of the Potter saga are being situated for the ultimate checkmate that will come two movies from now. The darker, tenser mood is only going to ratchet up and up through Half-Blood Prince (due next year) and Deathly Hallows (the book is due this month), but it starts here and now with Order of the Phoenix, which is a marvelously paced Potter yarn.

But this movie is more important that the sum of its moods, tones and tempos. For the first time in the series I found myself pulling for Harry, maybe because he’s given more to do. After the Ministry of Magic begins controlling Hogwarts curriculum (no magic, they say), Harry goes off on his own to teach those closest to him the magic the school refuses to teach. This provides an important image: Harry as teacher and leader. It also provides him a lot of interaction with the characters, including teaching Neville Longbottom how to disarm an opponent — “It’s all in the wrist,” Potter says. He also shares a long-overdue kiss with one of the characters. So often these on-screen kisses between teens aren’t necessary, but this one felt warranted and it was paced just right. It’s proof Harry is maturing into his role as teen, even while he comes to fully understand — in a scene set in a library of snow globes — his role as magic’s ultimate savior.

But savior comes much later. Here Harry’s still getting his feet wet, and with quite the cast of characters, too. Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) returns with a vengeance, as does Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson), who has one of those joke eyeballs as a real eye — the movie never shows how he uses binoculars or a telescope, but that image is priceless. Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) is back, his hair more blond and evil than ever. Potter staple Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) also returns darker and more gothic than ever. I’ll go out on a limb and commit this to record: surpassing Edward Scissorhands, Marilyn Manson and Jack Skellington, Snape is the new godfather of Goth. And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Rickman needs to do more movies. Also returning, but in abbreviated performances: Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid (the “weirdo with the beardo”), Maggie Smith as McGonagall and Emma Thompson as an optically challenged seer. 

The one character fans will be buzzing about, though, is Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), who takes over Hogwarts with a pink-gloved fist. She does away with magic, creates bizarre rules that she frames in a great hall, turns student against student, and basically wreaks havoc on Harry’s underground wizard classes. Umbridge is so controlling, so manipulative, so inexplicably cruel that a Christmas card from Nurse Ratched would probably say, “Chill out, you’re scaring even me.” She dresses as if she was on Leave it Beaver, but in color, and her office is decorated with creepy commemorative plates of kittens. In the Harry Potter tradition, the plates are all animated as if real kittens lived in the porcelain, so when students are punished in her office, a chorus of cats meow their approval.

I haven’t really mentioned the special effects yet, and I think it’s because the story trumps them for once. Not that they’re bad, it’s just that Harry’s development as a wizard has become more interesting than the magic. The effects are wonderful, though. Centaurs, simple-minded giants, skeleton flying horses … they all collide in Phoenix’s rich tapestry of computer animation. A lesson involving the “expecto patronum” chant involves creatures that emerge from blue mist, the happy feelings of the spell’s giver. When Potter goes to visit the Ministry of Magic he shares an elevator with paper airplanes — memos on the fly. The final battle is a wizard’s duel that is surprisingly fast-paced and violent, and the fireball effects blast away everything that’s left of the screen. And there, in the sand vortex, stands Lord Voldemort in the flesh.

I’m mighty impressed with the Order of the Phoenix, so much so that I’m tempted for the first time to make a good attempt at the books. And what great timing too, because the seventh and final one is ready to drop from J.K. Rowling’s diamond-coated grill. Rowling’s fans don’t need to read these words — they’ve probably already seen the movie by now … twice — but here they are anyway: Harry Potter No. 5 is terrific.