Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: Film Review

This book, and movie, is a watershed of backstory, revelations and plot clarifications before heading into the two remaining chapters. So while Phoenix is a necessary film, it's quite possibly the least enjoyable of the lot so far.

Things are indeed getting darker in the world of Potter. In "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," both the mood and color scheme are grim, gray and black. There is pink, as a matter of fact, but this belongs to the first female villain of the literary and film series.

The much-awaited film has a new director in British TV vet David Yates, and he and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg do a respectable job in keeping novelist J.K. Rowling's story on course. The problem, though, lies in that story and its course.

This is the fifth -- and longest at 800 pages -- book on which a "Harry Potter" film has been based. Consequently, this is a movie that feels like a reunion in a train station, in which even more characters get introduced and old friends revisited, making for a bewildering array of personages to keep track of even for those paying close attention. Then there is the fact that this book -- and movie -- is a watershed of backstory, revelations and plot clarifications before heading into the two remaining chapters. So while "Phoenix" is a necessary film, it's quite possibly the least enjoyable of the lot so far.

Which will not keep the multitudes from the multiplexes. Harry Potter is now a certifiable brand. Even the release of Rowling's climactic seventh book in three weeks' time and its promise to resolve all the loose ends will deter no one from checking out this behind-the-curve movie version.

Funnily enough, "Phoenix" ends up with everyone realizing what we, the audience, realized at the close of the last film, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" -- that the film's great but to this point almost ephemeral villain, Lord Voldemort, has returned. Only it takes another 138 minutes for everyone, save Harry, to truly comprehend this fact. Consequently, looking back, when the series is finally completed, "Phoenix" might go down as the problematic film, full of plot but little fun.

"Phoenix" begins in a glum mood with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, looking definitely older and more mature) moping about during summer holiday in the blighted land of the Muggles. His use of a bit of magic to save, of all people, his truly despised cousin Dudley results in an almost instant letter of expulsion from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for use of magic outside of school.

Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) rushes to his successful defense in court, but upon his return to school, he finds that most students, other than pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), steer clear of him. Even Dumbledore shies away.

Harry suffers from nightmares, but even worse is the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, the poisonous-in-pink Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). She is the amalgamation of all our worst high school teachers, a chronically strict and arrogant instructor who hands down decrees without the slightest concern for their impact.

It seems there is a political war afoot in which the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), is in severe denial about Voldemort's return. He prefers to view it as a rebellion by the school, its headmaster and that odious boy Harry. So the movie boils down to a series of moves and countermoves between a blind administration and a repressed student body.

There are several eye-catching moments here, some featuring otherworldy creatures, magic duels to the death, a clandestine though illicit wizardry school operated by Harry and rides through nighttime London skies. But the magic -- movie magic, that is -- is mostly missing in this outing.

The series also continues its shocking waste of talent. This includes why-bother appearances by the cream of British acting: Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson, David Thewlis, Richard Griffiths, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane (who, to be fair, was well used in previous films) and Ralph Fiennes (who, also to be fair, will as Voldemort make his major contribution in future films).

Certainly all design, visual effects, cinematography, costumes and editing are up to the series' state-of-the-art standards.