Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) / Fantasy-Adventure

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and frightening images
Running time: 138 min.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Imelda Staunton, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Helena Bonham Carter, Evanna Lynch, Alan Rickman, Katie Leung, Robbie Coltrane, Jason Isaacs, Brendan Gleeson, Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson
Director: David Yates
Screenplay: Michael Goldenberg (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling)

Review published July 14, 2007

From my personal perspective, as someone who views films as an entirely different medium than books, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a book adaptation the way it should be done.  Books are, in general, driven largely by characters and background story, which give a depth of understanding and meaning (when done right) to the events that eventually come into play.  As the length of the book is given a wide latitude, especially best-sellers such as this, the authors usually have free range as far as how long they develop their stories, as short as 150 pages to over 1000 in some cases.  Films are more plot-driven entities, concisely introducing us to the players, but getting to the events that build to the heart of the story almost immediately, escalating the conflicts until they build to a fever pitch.  However, the makers of the movies must be mindful of how much time they take, not only because people will grow restless in the audience the longer you go, but also that, for the studio, the more showings that theaters can have in a given day, the more money they can make by striking while the iron is hot when the film opens.  At nearly 900 pages, and with a rabid contingent of millions of fans, condensing all of the ingredients into a sub-2.5 hour movie already will have many ready for disappointment.

Before I get to the review, here's the story: Harry (Radcliffe, December Boys) gets himself into a heap of trouble when he is forced to do magic in front of Muggles in order to save his bacon from some Dementors, an act is strictly forbidden for someone of his age.  Dumbledore (Gambon, The Good Shepherd) manages to save the day, but Harry's despondency leads him further away from comfort with his friends and make-shift family at Hogwarts, especially as they aren't really taking to his cries that the dreaded Voldemort (Fiennes, Wallace and Gromit) is orchestrating something nefarious.  In fact, the Ministry of Magic has openly scoffed at such notions, and have sought to discredit Harry and Dumbledore's credibility at every turn -- an act which sees the Ministry's own Professor Umbridge (Staunton, Freedom Writers) replacing Dumbledore as headmistress and gumming up the works through her rather uncouth administration of powers.  Not everyone is resting on their laurels, however, as a top secret clan of wizards are conspiring to take on Voldemort, collectively known as the Order of the Phoenix.  Meanwhile, Harry and his closest friends prepare themselves for the war that seems inevitably brewing and about to boil over.

It seems that Harry's hair isn't the only thing in this film trimmed down.  Steve Kloves steps down from the writing chores, having done so for the first four films in the Harry Potter series, making way for Michael Goldenberg, screenwriter for the films Peter Pan and Contact.  The result is a pared-down experience that will mostly likely split many viewers, with lovers of the book perhaps most upset that many aspects of Rowling's work had been left on the conceptual cutting room floor.  

Keeping in mind that this film has obviously gutted many of the bells and whistles that make reading a Rowling work such a pleasure for millions, as a movie -- viewing it solely as a standalone cinematic work, rather than a mere adaptation -- it's probably the most successful of the series thus far.  While it may still be somewhat hampered by having to keep characters that will play a more vital role later around that don't really add to the movie at hand, for the most part, Goldenberg and director David Yates (The Girl in the Cafe, Sex Traffic) waste little time in getting us into the story and keeping us focused throughout.  Cutesy scenes are kept to a minimum, while the tone, a very dark one here, is kept consistent from beginning to end, which has been something that the previous films would sometimes have difficulty achieving.

Order of the Phoenix also benefits from the maturation of the performers in their roles, with an especially impressive Daniel Radcliffe showing a range of deeper emotion that hadn't always been present in previous outings.  It's in keeping with the nature of his characters coming-of-age, as his eyes have been opened as to the treachery around him, as well as his frustration in the lack of understanding by his peers and authority figures in the perils he has to endure and the dangerous future that lies in wait for all of them.  I have to say, speaking as someone who has often found myself disengaged emotionally as to what's going on in the Harry Potter films, this is, by far, the most interesting and resonant entry yet.  For the first time, I actually do care about Harry prevailing.  I should also add here that Imelda Staunton's depiction of the haughty villainess of the film, Dolores Umbridge, feels right on the money.

Another commendable aspect of Yates' delivery is the decision not to mount the film's plot around the action set pieces.  Order of the Phoenix has a few moments of action, but they aren't gratuitous effect-laden scenes merely to dazzle us.  Rather, they tie in directly to the story at hand, and expound the emotional element without drawing things out to absurdly lengthy proportions just to show more eye-candy fire and brimstone.  Thankfully, from my perspective, there is no 15-minute Quidditch scene, and no phallic broomstick chases of any sort, which I've always felt as redundant and useless after the first film's depiction of them.

After The Goblet of Fire, I began to suspect that, while the remaining Potter films might be enjoyable for those who read the books, the people who watch solely the films are starting to be left behind.  It's my pleasure to say that The Order of the Phoenix thwarts that notion, as it is not only an example of a solid way to adapt a lengthy work into a worthwhile movie experience, but it also sets the table for the more eventful chapters to follow, and has us looking forward to them -- something that previous films weren't always able to do. 

While the literary fans will most likely be split as far as how Yates and Goldenberg have chosen to adapt the Rowling opus, fans of the movies can finally have something to smile about, and one can only hope that future film versions will continue this new trend on sticking to the basics to tell a story in an appropriately cinematic fashion, leaving the side stories and whimsical superfluous characters better left to the realm of the richly-developed book forms.  I can't quite say I'm wild about Harry yet, but after The Order of the Phoenix, he has at least regained by attention.

-- Preceded by Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  Followed by Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo