July 13, 2007 -- “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is a fine film, but it can't quite overcome the shortcomings of trying to squeeze 600 pages of plot into 138 minutes. The resulting movie seems like it drags on forever, yet it is so busy covering hundreds of plot points there is no time for any of its characters to shine. That's a pity because it has a lot of good characters portrayed by top-notch actors.
All the regular characters are back, plus there are some new ones. Some characters get very little screen time, getting lost in the crowd. A couple of new characters are worth mentioning are Dolores Umbridge, the administrator from hell (played wonderfully by Imelda Staunton of “Freedom Writers”) and quirky Hogwarts student Luna Lovegood (played by Evanna Lynch). Umbridge, who takes over Hogwarts, is a fine example of someone who lets the power of her position go to her head. She is obsessed with authority and control. She turns Hogwarts into a joyless, lifeless place controlled rigidly with an ever-expanding list of rules crafted to stamp out every last vestige of individual freedom. She reminds me of the evil boss in “Dilbert.” Power and authority bring out her worst qualities.
Luna Lovegood is the opposite kind of character. She is kind and understanding and doesn't care what anyone thinks of her. She is also courageous and is a steadfast friend that Harry Potter can count on. She is also very odd. First-time actress (and longtime Harry Potter fan) Evanna Lynch is very impressive in this role, reminiscent of a young Christina Ricci who so perfectly played the character Wednesday Aadams in the Aadams Family movies. Helena Bonham Carter, a fine actress, joins the cast as the deliciously evil witch Bellatrix Lestrange, but gets very little screen time. Another character in the film, Neville Longbottom (played by Matthew Lewis, who reprises his role), gets an expanded role here. In the earlier films, Longbottom was more of a minor character. In this film he is a little more at the forefront. Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) is back and plays a key role in this film. Rickman, a gifted actor, makes the most of his time on screen. Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) has an important part in this film and Grint shows how he has grown into this role. He's much more impressive this time around.
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is at the center of the story. He is in a perpetually sour mood this time around, so he's really not required to do much acting, and that's just as well. His idea of showing anger is to pant like a hot dog. Harry finds himself angry and haunted by dreams of his nemesis, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). This growing connection between Potter and Voldemort is similar to the connection between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” series. In fact there are a lot of similarities between Star Wars and Harry Potter. Potter is hounded by the Ministry of Magic, who tries to expel him from Hogwarts, and then by Umbridge (also from the Ministry of Magic). As if this isn't enough, he also has to deal with uncomfortable memories about his father, and the realization that his parents were not as perfect as he thought they were.
The whole plot revolves around the Ministry of Magic and others who are denying that Voldemort has returned. The reason for this denial is not very convincing. It has something to do with head-in-the-sand attitudes about denying a scary truth, but it is carried to ridiculous extremes here. All of this political turmoil adds to the foreshadowing of the upcoming battle between good and evil at the heart of the series. Black magic is afoot in this film. Director David Yates, his first time at the helm in the series, does a great job of getting the mood right for this gathering storm. Portents of looming evil are everywhere in the film.
This brings up the question of why there needs to be so much moodiness, anguish, darkness and death in a child's tale about magic. It sure is a wet, smothering blanket over this popular series that began far lighter in tone. For one thing, this is solidly in the tradition of fairy tales. The original Grimm's Fairy Tales had many a dark story. There are also some great kids movies with unhappy endings, like “Bridge to Terabithia,” “The Mighty” and “Old Yeller.” For another thing, it seems to be in the nature of creative people to have a sour outlook on life. Two people can go through similar life experiences and one can come out happy, the other unhappy, convinced that life is cruel and unfair. Guess which type of person usually ends up writing popular books? Here is a hint. Ernest Hemingway, commenting on what is the best training for a writer, reportedly said, “An unhappy childhood.”
Here we have J.K. Rowling, the richest woman in England, the most successful author in the world, living what most people would call a fairy tale existence, yet compelled to write a series of books, each darker, more depressing than the last. In fact, the richer and more famous she becomes, the more depressing her books become. Are her inner demons, maybe an unhappy childhood, the source of her inspiration? Maybe. For whatever reason, many authors feel compelled to punish the reading public with their inner torment. The same is true for some film directors. Depressed, creative people, of course, say that they are smarter than happy people, but maybe they are just jealous. Maybe they aren't smarter, just more driven to succeed in their mission to make happy people less so. Whatever the reason, you simply can't convince them that the glass of life is half full.
As dark and depressing as the film is, this is a good movie, and a worthy successor to the previous films in the series. It is both slow and hurried. Several fine actors are shortchanged in terms of screen time, but it gets the job done, acting as a bridge to the next two films in the series. It rates a B.
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