Sunday, July 15, 2007

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Remember when Harry Potter was funny?

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, directed by David Yates. Screenplay by Michael Goldenberg. Produced by David Barron and David Heyman. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson. Warner Bros., 2007. Runtime 138 minutes. Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is AII--Adults and Adolescents.

Read other reviews here.

A little while ago, Chris Columbus directed two agonizingly boring installments of the Harry Potter series, featuring mumbling actors who paced back and forth as if the director had never bothered to block them, a young Daniel Radcliffe who wandered around like a glass-eyed zombie, and choppy, underdeveloped storytelling. The over-the-top arguments usually ending in fistfights, not to mention the various gags at the expense of occult lore, so vital to the novels' likability, were nowhere to be found. Then came Alfonso Cuarón, who finally breathed life into the series with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which featured the imaginative images, beautiful setting, and visual gags the series so desperately needed. Cuarón also knew how to work his child actors: in this third movie, Radcliffe at last came into his own; he wasn't just playing Harry Potter, he was Harry Potter.

It was sad to see Cuarón go, but David Newell at least kept the momentum going with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, even if that film lacked the gags and unique imagery of its predecessor. But now David Yates has returned the series to its roots with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. By that, I mean it's agonizingly boring. Worse still, it doesn't even make a pretense of being funny.

In this installment of the franchise, the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, playing it surprisingly straight) has returned to his full power, but the Ministry of Magic headed by Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) is in denial; only Harry Potter and Professor Dumbeldore (Michael Gambon) will admit the Dark Lord has returned. To keep Potter and Dumbledore under control, Fudge dispatches the cloying and odious Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to be the new professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts and to keep the school on a tight leash. Because Umbridge isn't teaching the students necessary combat and defense skills, Harry's friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) convince Harry to teach his own, secret class, a group he calls Dumbeldore's Army.

This is based on the fifth novel in the series in which Harry goes through an angry teenage phase, spending most of the book screaming and throwing tantrums (and giving the lie to the books' detractors who mistakenly think Rowling is presenting Harry as a role model). Radcliffe, by contrast, gives a subdued performance with lots of seething but minimal shouting, successfully portraying a brooding, perpetually angry teenager (I suppose he's had lots of practice with that horse). By contrast, Watson and Grint have barely any screen time, and Watson, formerly the movies' shining light, now looks like she desperately wants to be anywhere but in another Potter film. On the other hand, the otherworldly and sprightly Evanna Lynch, playing Luna Lovegood, is a welcome addition to the cast and a ray of sunshine in the midst of a very dreary movie.

Cuarón (how we miss you!) recognized that the translation from book to film was not an easy one; he insisted the movie be short and tight, and that the greatest amount of editing must occur in the screenplay, not in the editing room, which probably explains why his film is not only the shortest in the series, but the least choppy. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, however, is a bare outline of the gargantuan 896-page novel, flitting from event to event with no development and, consequently, no point: Hagrid is keeping a baby giant in the woods, but so what? Professor Snape is teaching Harry legilemency, but so what? Harry kisses a girl after his self-taught class, but so what? These events have meaning in the book because they get development, but in the movie, because the writer and direct can't decide what to cut and what to include and, most importantly, what to dwell on, the film is only a choppy sketch, not a real story. Book 5 is arguably the strongest in the series, but movie 5 is one of the weakest.

And making it all worse, the fun, humor, and fast pace that pervade the novels even in their darkest moments are absent. The color has been leached from the film after the manner of Minority Report, and even during the whiz-bang special effects scenes, the actors mostly stand around with glum looks on their faces. It's dreary and, what's more, it's sluggish.

The highlight of the novel is a rousing, slam-bang action sequence between members of Dumbledore's Army and Voldemort's Death Eaters; the sequence goes on for almost a hundred pages without getting boring. I eagerly anticipated this sequence through the whole movie, but when it comes, Harry and his faithful friends mostly spend their time battling flying clouds of sand. Wait a minute, I paid six hard-earned bucks to see some serious wizard dueling and I want to see it! And since when are wizards in the Potterverse able to transform into sand or fly under their own power, anyway?

As for moral and religious content, the enemies of the Harry Potter stories will want to focus their attention here. This is the novel and the movie that introduces the most moral complexity to Harry Potter's world. It introduces a character who is not only a professor but also a government representative and unabashedly evil as well as sweet. It features Harry's godfather (Gary Oldman in the film) telling Harry that no individual is either wholly good or wholly evil. It features shameless student rule-breaking on a greater level than that which has characterized the series generally. And of course, it features a very nasty, very selfish, and very loud Harry Potter.

In my own estimation, none of this ought to concern Christian parents or readers. The statement by Harry's godfather is only a reflection of reality; though some Christian critics have expressed the desire, or the demand, that all characters in fantasy be either sweetness and light or else orcs, the desire is not conducive to good storytelling. The weakness and sometimes wickedness of the government in the Harry Potter universe should not be a matter of concern: corrupt governments are a staple of fantasy as well as reality. The student rule-breaking, potentially more problematic, is mostly tongue-in-cheek, not to mention necessary to the characters' survival. And as for Harry himself, only the final novel will reveal exactly what Rowling plans to do with him, but there is no indication thus far that Harry's character flaws are meant to be anything other than character flaws, and no Christian reader has a right to be perturbed by flawed characters.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

Myth Level: Medium (it just doesn't have the effect, you know?)

Quality: Medium-Low (good cast, good sets, good effects, lousy directing, crummy script)

Ethics/Religion: High (nothing objectionable)

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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