Film Review: Phoenix doesn’t soar

The adaptation of a popular story from one medium to another is often an arduous task, particularly if that property has a large and rabid fanbase. With the release of the fifth installment of the Harry Potter adaptations, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the filmmakers are finally feeling the pinch of translating a highly-serialized story onto the silver screen.

In the four previous visits to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the major players have been firmly established. In year five, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has to deal with being shunned by the magical community when the Ministry of Magic (led by Cornelius Fudge, played by Robert Hardy) refuses to accept that Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned, launching a smear campaign on Harry and Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). With Voldemort and his followers gaining support, Harry is approached by Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) and his mysterious Order of the Phoenix. Further complicating matters is the appointment of the ministry’s Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, especially when Umbridge begins to consolidate power and hinder Harry’s efforts to prepare his classmates for battle.

The first four films introduced a cavalcade of interesting characters to the Potter universe and used them in complex and compelling ways. Just about every surviving character returns in Order of the Phoenix. The titular order features characters like Mad-Eye Moody (Brandon Gleeson), Sirius Black and Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) and the rest of the film is dotted with appearances from magical figures both major and minor. These appearances may be treats for fans of the books, but they make for a cluttered film. The serialization of the series also rears its head, as characters from earlier films show up but the audience is never told who they are or why they’re there. Despite the glut of characters, the acting is uniformly great. Newcomers Imelda Staunton and Evanna Lynch are exceptional as Dolores Umbridge and Luna Lovegood, respectively.

At just over two hours long, the fifth installment is the shortest film despite being adapted from the longest Harry Potter novel. Michael Goldenberg’s resulting script is fairly straightforward, but cuts a ton of material from the novel in favour of keeping the film’s pace brisk. Unfortunately, this removes a lot of contextual elements from the proceedings that probably should have been left in. Seemingly important parts of the magical universe are mentioned, but never really explained, leaving audience members who haven’t memorized the books a bit out in the cold. While most of the climax of Order of the Phoenix surrounds the Ministry of Magic, the mechanics and logistics of the various after-hours visits to the ministry are never fully explained.

The first major feature film project for veteran television director David Yates–who’ll also helm the Half-Blood PrinceOrder of the Phoenix suffers slightly from Yates’ inexperience. The lavish set pieces that have become a hallmark of the series, including the 200-foot-long Ministry of Magic set, are presented in a manner that strips them of their majesty. Perhaps linked to the more serious tone of the script, the wonder and whimsy surrounding the magical elements in earlier films has been replaced with a more clinical approach. It also hurts that very few spells are cast before the climax.

Casual fans of the series may deride this film for its lack of action. Indeed, audiences will be hard-pressed to list more than three major events that occurred over its duration. However, as the defacto middle chapter of the larger series, the film acts as the pivot point that shoves the story towards its eventual conclusion. Much like the Empire Strikes Back or the Two Towers, this middle chapter exists to flesh out some minor characters and storyline points that will probably be important later. While unlikely to be as highly regarded in hindsight as other middle chapters, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a fine film. Compared to the exceptional previous Harry Potter installments, though, it falls short of expectations.

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