At a mere two hours and 18 minutes, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is the shortest film in the series — no small feat, considering the book it’s based on is the longest. Subplots have been cut, and some fans will surely be shocked and appalled, but they needn’t be. Streamlined though the film may be, the important thing is that it doesn’t feel streamlined. It feels like an exciting and fast-paced fantasy adventure — which is exactly what it’s supposed to feel like.
British TV director David Yates is the latest man to walk through the series’ revolving door (he’ll do “Half-Blood Prince,” too), and he brings with him an admirable work ethic. Chris Columbus’ first two entries were rambly, and Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell had a great deal of fun putting their own imprimaturs on Nos. 3 and 4. If Yates has an identifying mark to his directorial style, I missed it. He’s a for-hire director who gets the job done with the appropriate levels of humor, energy, and thrills, but without a lot of time-wasting foolishness in between. Get in, get ‘r done, and get out.
And it works. As satisfying as it was to see someone like Cuaron make a movie that was unquestionably “his,” I realize now that it’s also a pleasure to see someone make a movie in a serviceable, cheerfully anonymous style. Yates, working from an adaptation by new-to-the-series Michael Goldenberg (“Peter Pan”), does just that. The movie works the way a Harry Potter movie ought to. It’s not perfect — a few ends remain loose, a few characters get shafted — but it’s very good.
This episode finds Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) more sullen and tormented than usual. Dreams of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) plague his sleep. Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), the head of the Ministry of Magic, has spent the summer planting stories in the Daily Prophet that paint Harry as a liar for proclaiming Voldemort’s return. “All is well!” cry the headlines. Fudge has staked his career on the false pretense that the wizarding community has nothing to worry about.
To that end, he sends Hogwarts a new Ministry-approved Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor. She is Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), a deliciously sweet-seeming little woman clad in pink and always wearing a smile on her plump, grandmotherly face. She is, as you might expect, evil incarnate, albeit a kind of evil Harry has never dealt with before. She earnestly believes the party line that Voldemort is gone and Harry is a liar. It’s her devotion to goodness that has made her a villain and a zealot. When she turns Hogwarts into a police state, abolishing all extracurricular gatherings and encouraging students to rat on one another, she seems to be doing it out of a genuine (though misguided) desire for law and order.
Part of her campaign is to stop teaching any actual defensive spells in Defense Against the Dark Arts. Everything she teaches is theoretical. After all, since Voldemort is no threat, why on earth would you ever need to use a defensive spell in real life?
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001) B
“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002) B-
“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004) A-
“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (2005) A-
“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (2007) B+
“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (2009) A-
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1” (2010) B+
“Harry Potter and the Death Hallows Part 2” (2011) B+
Since Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) know the truth — that Voldemort is out there and rapidly recruiting his followers — they assemble an underground group called Dumbledore’s Army. Under Harry’s instruction, these students practice defense against the dark arts in secret, preparing for the battle that the Ministry says will never happen.
As usual, the adults are the most entertaining figures in the film. Imelda Staunton is a gleefully wicked addition as Umbridge, and Alan Rickman continues to steal every scene he’s in — often with no more than a raised eyebrow — as Professor Snape.
But the kids are doing well, too, with Daniel Radcliffe really coming into his own as an actor in this installment. A brief flashback to the previous film reminds us how much he’s matured just since then, and he plays Harry’s conflicting emotions with impressive range. A significant part of this film’s climax deals entirely with Harry’s internal struggles, and Radcliffe pulls it off with great maturity.
As I write this, the world is once again experiencing a bout of Potter-mania, with the final book in the series due just 10 days after this film opens. Most of us are probably more excited for that book than we are for this movie, since the book is an unknown commodity and the movie is merely a reenactment of stuff we’ve already read. But as an appetizer for what’s to come — and a reminder of how magical and entertaining the Harry Potter universe is — “Order of the Phoenix” satisfies.
B+ (2 hrs., 18 min.; )