It’s interesting to note that in this summer of blockbuster films, almost none of the most anticipated films is a wholly original creation. We’ve got plenty of thirds, a few sequels, and plenty of television adaptations to look forward to, but among those with the most cinematic capital none are first parts, first chapters, or even spin-offs. There was once a time when such a phenomenon would be frowned upon, the true signs of a creatively bankrupt industry coasting on the fumes of past successes and former glories. How times have changed, as five movies in and the Harry Potter saga is still going strong. As the 7th and final book finishes the series literary run, those fans looking for a more cinematic experience won’t be disappointed with the latest entry in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Directing all this chaos is first-time Potter director David Yates, a British director with surprisingly little film history but lots of television experience. Although performing admirably, perhaps such a large and visually rich canvas wasn’t the best place to test his cinematic muscles. As we’re now deep into chapter five, the Potter film franchise is really beginning to reflect the dark and more mature tones the books have taken, relying on a philosophically complex mix of its main characters and the situations they’ve found themselves in. Teenage angst becomes a key player all its own as the young cast enters puberty head-on, with all the scary and difficult mix of emotions and reality that is part and parcel of growing up.
There’s never a real sense of excitement and the wonder of discovery of what we’re seeing, as though by this fifth adventure we’ve seen it all and should be content with finishing the ride. Magic doors open unceremoniously, amazing creations and beasts are introduced as though they’re status quo, as the main cast of characters slosh forward on their increasingly depressing mission more out of necessity than encouragement. Although certainly not terrible, Gates has already been named the director of the next entry in the series (The Half-Blood Prince), so there’s definitely room for improvement.
Credit good insight into casting for the future, but the trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson (Hermione), and the always enjoyable Rupert Grint (Ron) is a masterstroke for the entire series and perfect vehicles for their maturing characters. The main cast of occurring actors perform as well as ever, with Radcliff in particular really beginning to showcase the acting chops such a role demands. We’re literally watching these kids grow up on screen, having to match their real life with the fictitious ones they’ve been saddled with as they play against some of the most impressive acting talent the industry can throw at them. Speaking of the incredible supporting cast, has there ever been as impressive a group of acting talent as those in the Potter series? From Maggie Smith, Gary Oldman, Brenden Gleeson, Jason Issacs, Michael Gambon as well as so many others, we’ve got acting talent defined on-screen, and with so much story and plot to cover it’s inevitable that so much of it has to be curbed to stay within the relatively small time limits.
Imelda Staunton as Delores Umbridge in particular steals much of the movie, as the deliciously evil thorn in Potter’s side she literally eats up the screen whenever she’s in. Thank goodness, as her presence in the book was so overpowering anything less just wouldn’t have worked. For comparison’s sake check out her starring role in the abortion drama Vera Drake to see how impressively sweet she’s capable of being and you’ll appreciate her turn here as Umbridge all the more. I wish I could say the same for the curiously top-billed Helena Bonham Carter, usually show-stealer all by herself, is wasted with little more of a glimmer of screen time playing the little-seen (by incredibly relevant) Bellatrix Lestrange. She sparkles with venom when she’s up there, which isn’t nearly often enough.
As an adaptation of the book itself, Yates and Company seem to have hit most of the major plot devices and key moments, but this comes at the expense of a serious amount of extraneous plot detailing and character development. It would seem that in nearly every case action was substituted for fleshing out this fictional world with incidental characters and development padding. I’ve long relegated myself (as a Potter fan) to keeping both the literary and film worlds of Hogwarts into separate sections in my brain, but there certainly seemed to be an awful chunk of information missing here. Much like the last Potter film, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was watching a plot-point checklist of the book’s key elements than an attempt to create a singular entertainment with the strengths of film. Although never as by-the-numbers as the first two films in the franchise, let’s hope the final two excursions bring an even wider sense of wonderment.
One other thing I’d like to mention is the film’s score, which this time is under the control of David Gates collaborator Nicholas Hooper. While not bad, he’s certainly no John Williams or even Patrick Doyle (the composer of Goblet of Fire). Unlike Doyle, Hooper doesn’t attempt to mimic William’s smashingly successful take on this magical world and while admirable to strike out on his own, can be immensely disappointing. The roots of the Potter universe, well cultivated by a resurgent Williams only a few years ago, have become of the film worlds most cherished modern masterpieces, with Prisoner of Azkabon in particular being the series highlight. Nothing here is up to that benchmark, but then again you could say that about most soundtracks. Just don’t expect to come dancing out the theater humming that hauntingly beautiful theme this time…
Those who have diligently followed the boy wizard’s cinematic exploits will still find much (insert groan) magic in this installment of J.K Rowling’s franchise, but there’s little doubt hardcore Potter fans will feel a little disappointed. The challenge of turning hundreds of pages of text into a entertaining film is difficult enough, but the added difficulty of keeping it within the context of such an established world so familiar to millions of fans across the world isn’t the easiest of things to accomplish. As negative as my opinion might seem here, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is still a fantastic entertainment and certainly one of this over-crowded summer’s most enjoyable films.
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Warner Bros. Pictures