In my nerdbird household, the Harry Potter movies have become something of a tradition. Every couple of months we either track down an airing on cable or rent a copy. They are always a great distraction; something to chase away the Sunday blues. It should come as no surprise then when I say that we were pretty excited to see this latest installment on the big screen.
The opening scene looked like a Pink Floyd video. It had a dreamy quality, both familiar and unsettling. Sitting on a swing set, Harry looked the part of a frustrated young man stuck in a child's playground. Right on cue, his bloated, cross eyed cousin saunters into the picture, cronies in tow. I have to admit, that I didn't realize who this frumpy bully was supposed to be. I didn't recognize him from the earlier movies. Dudley, dressed like a pseudo hip hop fan, taunts Harry even going so far as to bring up Harry's dead mother. Jumping out of the swing, Harry steps up to his miserable cousin and points his wand under Dudley's chin. Not even two minutes into the movie and already I'm hooked in. I wanted to see Harry zap his cousin's insufferable head right off. But alas, Harry is a good boy. And he knows that with great power comes great responsibility. The funny thing is though, that in Harry's magical grasp, a pointed wand is just as good as a loaded gun. Heavy stuff.
Welcome to the Order
Early in the picture, Harry is introduced to the Order of the Phoenix. Consisting of many of the adult characters in the story, the Order is a motley bunch of wizards. Their hideout in London is a dusty apartment magically concealed from muggle eyes. The special effects reveal of the hideout reminded me of something Niel Gaiman would write. When Harry enters the house, we see most of the recurrent characters conspiring around a dusty dining room table. They all share some secret that they don't want Harry to be in on. But rather than building suspense or mystery, this scene only annoys me by feeling forced. The saving grace of this story point is that we are re-introduced to Harry's godfather Sirius Black (coolly portrayed by the sometimes creepy but always electrifying Gary Oldman). In this movie, Sirius is not the ragamuffin refugee like he was in the third film. This time he looks like a rock star, he is the Jim Morrison of wizarding.
In the opening scenes of the movie, Harry and his cousin are attacked by a pair of Dementors. Introduced in the third film, Dememtors look like the grim reaper and have the power to steal your life essence. They are supposed to be under the control of the Ministry of Magic and only used to hunt down wanted criminals. Fighting for his life, Harry had no choice but to cast a Patronus Charm to drive the Dementors away. But using magic in front of normal humans is strictly forbidden and Harry is summonsed to a trial before the Ministry. Harry's accusal is the first sign of a conspiracy within the magical governing body. The trial itself is a trap of circular logic and legal inequity. Harry was defending himself from the Dementors who represent the will of the Ministry and therefore the Minister himself. Harry's trial defense then is that he was forced to use magic by the very same people that accuse him for it. The audience knows this to be the truth, but this is hardly an "acceptable" defense. Among his accusers is Dolores Umbridge, Inquisitor of the Ministry. Played by Academy Award nominee Imelda Staunton, this character is like a wicked stepmother, perfectly cruel. We also get a glimpse of the Department of Mysteries. With black gleaming tiles and Gothic chrome fixtures, if hell had an office, this is what is would look like.
Back to School
All magic and peril aside, Harry Potter is a story about special kids away at boarding school. At the end of summer break, Harry is reunited with his friends. Rupert Grint and Emma Watson (Ron & Hermione) have, just like Daniel Radcliffe, grown from adorable brats into handsome young adults (here's to hoping they don't become friends with Paris, though they are probably contractually obligated to avoid her). We also meet new student, Luna Lovegood. Played by series newcomer Evanna Lynch, the ethereal Luna is a flower child of a wizard. With cornsilk hair and an airy voice, she is a weird and welcome addition to the class. Through her interactions with Harry, we see that he is becoming spiritually darker as he has witnessed death.
Throughout the series, Harry's notoriety has kept him at a distance from his classmates. At times he is admired for his natural talents, and at other times he is derided for those same skills. The events of the last film have driven the wedge between Harry and the other students even further. He is accused of lying about the death of Cedric Diggory at the hands of the resurrected Lord Voldemort. The "Daily Prophet" magical newspaper smears propaganda against both Harry and his most ardent supporter, Hogwart's headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Again a tool of the Ministry is used to attack Harry...this is not going to be a good year for him.
The story proceeds at a slow pace. Of all the movies thus far, The Order of the Phoenix has the least amount of plot events. But the strengths of this film lie in how it brings the series to a darker, more consequential place. The machinations of the Ministry of Magic are undeniably Orwellian. As the Inquisitor of the Ministry, Dolores Umbridge subjects the students to magical forms of self abuse and brain washing. She administers harsh truth serums to unlock their minds. This is heavy subject matter for a family film, but is an excellent emotional hook into a story that could be easily dismissed as juvenile fiction.
Harry's connection to Voldemort is further explored in this story. Stemming from the events of Harry's childhood when Voldemort attempted to kill him, Harry has an almost telepathic bond with the villain, sharing thoughts and powers. Professor Snape tries to teach Harry the art of Occlumency, a technique whereby one can close one's mind to invasion. Harry's sessions with Snape accidentally reveal an interesting chapter in the youth of both Snape and Harry's deceased father. Through Snape's memories, Harry sees an unexpected scene of his father bullying a young version of the professor. Harry is understandably shaken as he realizes that his father may not have been the kind saint that he is in Harry's mind. To me this scene underscores that transitional realization we all have that the mental pictures of our youth are skewed from what we see as adults. When we are kids, people and places seem so much bigger than they really are.
Enter the Dragon
The buildup and the events of this movie are slower than the ones before it. The mysteries and reveals are sometimes too subtle to have much emotional punch. But the final scenes of the story are some of the most intense displays of magic on film. Lord Voldemort has been drawn out of hiding. His pack of Death Eaters have bared their fangs. The soldiers of the Order of the Phoenix are prepared to battle the darkness and stem the spread of evil that is corrupting the Ministry of Magic. And stumbling right into the middle of the fight are Harry and "Dumbledore's Army". In this story, the students take it upon themselves to learn the combative aspects of magic that they are denied by the Ministry. They choose Harry as their instructor since he has had the most experience with almost getting killed.
I won't belabor the final confrontation with a blow by blow except to say that it was an awesome display. Magic wands can easily come off as corny, but they managed to stay out of the realm of silly. One thing I do want to note specifically is that there is a match between elemental magics, fire and water, that totally gets me psyched for the possibilities of the upcoming movie version of Avatar the Last Airbender (if you haven't seen this show, run don't walk!)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was not the best of the movie series. It lacks the adventure of the other films in favor something that I would describe as dark fantasy. It moves the series away from being a kids' movie and that's not necessarily a bad thing, but serious movies just aren't as fun. Personally I was satisfied with the action. For my money, the climax of the picture more than made up for the earlier slow points. The deeper character elements are a welcome addition, specifically Harry having to redefine himself not as a precocious kid but as a young man who bears the responsibility of his choices. In this way it seems like the series is trying to grow up with its viewers. Ron and Hermione took a back seat in this story. I was disappointed to see them more as set dressing than as plot drivers. Hopefully the next installment will once again focus on their friendship. Making good movies out of beloved books is a tough business. I suspect that more than a few weak plot points would be fleshed out by having read the book first. But alas, I have not read any of the series. There are so many hours in a day and so many media to consume. Besides, why read the book when you can watch the movie?