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In what is sure to be one of the rare instances when book hype outpaces movie hype, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” serves almost as an appetizer for the main course next weekend: the release of the final book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” “Order of the Phoenix” is a middle chapter in the series and the longest book, and as such it can only go so far in delivering a satisfying climax, but it remains an entertaining and worthy entry in the series nonetheless.The film opens with a horror sequence more frightening than almost any in the series so far. After Harry gets bullied yet again by his corpulent cousin Dudley, two hideous Dementors attack them, and Harry is forced to use magic outside of Hogwarts to protect them both. He succeeds, but is expelled and hauled off to a tribunal at the Ministry of Magic, led by the paranoid Cornelius Fudge. Throughout the film, Fudge wages a smear campaign against Potter in the press, denying that the evil Voldemort has returned and calling Harry a liar in the process.Harry eventually returns to Hogwarts, but this year’s events are far from the jumping chocolate frogs and magic moving paintings of yesteryear. Fudge has dispatched his execrable toady Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts, and while she wears ridiculous fuzzy pink dresses and has kittens plastered over her office walls, they conceal an autocratic thirst for power and lust for torture. Basically, she’s all the worst teachers you’ve ever had rolled into one.While Umbridge slowly takes over the school, Potter and his loyal friends Hermione and Ron form a secret club where they teach themselves and other students how to fight against the oncoming evil. When the time comes, wands and sparks fly at the Ministry of Magic, and “Order” manages to make the magic battles as thrilling as possible, considering the fights consist largely of wand-pointing and bright flashes of light.Daniel Radcliffe has matured into an anguished Harry, and his older age and stage-honed chops help him carry it off rather well, even if he overplays a scene or two. Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron) fit into their roles like old gloves, and they convincingly amp up the puberty-strained tension between all three. Once again, the film’s embarrassment of British acting riches – Emma Thompson, David Thewlis, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Gary Oldman, Brendon Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, and the list goes on – is largely fantastic, and it’s a shame they don’t get more screen time. Staunton is particularly terrifying with her squeaky, little-girl laugh and the genteel, British-Auntie tones she uses to dole out her Fascist rhetoric. Fiennes bites into the noseless role of Voldemort, prancing about and vamping sadistically like a true son of darkness.Like all the previous Harry Potter films (except “Prisoner of Azkaban”), “Phoenix” suffers from trying to cram all the details and subplots from the book into one film, and though this one is the shortest, it feels long as we jump from one information-crammed scene to another. As the Potter books go on, it’s becoming clear that any minute detail might figure as a major plot point in the future, though, so you can’t blame the fimmakers for trying to fit it all in. But even the namesake Order of the Phoenix seems to get short shrift in this movie.
Also, the same unrelentingly dark tone of the film that gives the picture its rich mood and atmosphere can wear on an audience after a while. This is a film about magic, after all, but nobody seems to be having any fun. The thrills come from deathly danger and combat rather than the wonderment of previous films. A rebellious moment courtesy of the rambunctious Weasely twins does bring back some of the old spark, though.New director David Yates (an acclaimed British miniseries director) can’t quite match the epic grandeur and intimate pathos of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” but he steers the Potter ship with a firm hand and elegantly guides it into the dark adolescent waters from which it will presumably never return. Next weekend, after reading “The Deathly Hallows,” we’ll learn just how dark that future will truly be.’Order of the Phoenix’ taps into new magicBy Shauna Farnell When “Harry Potter and the Order of The Phoenix” opens with the camera on a tall, gangly teenager with bushy eyebrows, chopped hair and pronounced jaw line, the connection takes a bit to sink in. Wait a minute…could that be? Yup. There’s no mistaking it. That is Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) – no longer a doll-faced, shaggy child in an oversized cape.
And yes, here comes Ron (Rupert Grint), as goofy-looking as one would expect for the mid-puberty incarnation of the droopy-eyed, slack-jawed, red headed child we’ve known all this time. And Hermione (Emma Watson) has grown from a confident little girl into an equally self-assured and sassy teen. Those who can remember the book will recall that J.K. Rowling herself made a point of drawing attention to the post-adolescent transformation of her protagonists in this story. And because Rowling has a say in the details of the cinematic versions of all of her written masterpieces to date – if not the last word – “Order of the Phoenix,” at least in ambiance and appearance, holds true to the book.As always, many of the delicious intricacies are lost when 600-plus pages are condensed to 138 minutes, but Harry Potter No. 5 is about as successful an attempt to encompass the book’s magic as the filmmakers and Rowling could possibly hope for.The special effects are the best we’ve seen so far, the acting is spot-on, and the creative imagery of Hogwarts (the sorcery school) and the world of wizards is absolutely hypnotizing.I’m glad I never got around to re-reading the book before seeing the film, and would suggest that viewers who haven’t seen it yet leave their novels on the shelf as well. The film stands alone much more successfully when you’re not constantly sizing up every scene to the castle of details you recount from the book.Luckily, the film reminds us immediately of where we left off after Harry Potter No. 4 (“Goblet of Fire”). Harry is sulking in a park during his summer break, depressed and lost in thought about the way his school year ended: The TriWizard tournament finished with a horrific confrontation that saw the return of Lord Voldemort, who killed his friend and rival Cedric Diggory. In comes Harry’s porky cousin, Dudley, and his bullying pals. They start in on Harry, who responds to their jeers with an understandable level of volatility, shoving his wand into the neck of one of Dudley. Without warning, a couple of Dementors show up. Remember them? They’re the creepy characters who guard the prisoners in Azkaban and fly around sucking people’s souls out of their faces.While Dudley is left in a vegetative state after being attacked by the Dementors, Harry is swept off to safety by his wizard friends and his godfather, Sirius Black. Because Harry has committed the crime of using magic in front of a Muggle (which means human in Harry Potter language), he is sent to court by the Ministry of Magic, and there catches a glimpse of who his friends and enemies are within the ministry. Many wizards don’t believe Harry’s story that Voldemort has returned, but Harry has disturbingly prophetic nightmares about the dark lord. And because Hogwarts has been overrun by the ministry’s fantastically sinister Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), Harry must coach his fellow students in the magic they will need to fight the powers of darkness.
If you’re a true Harry Potter fanatic, you are intimately familiar with that feeling of totally losing yourself in the world of the books – of wishing you could have gone to Hogwarts school, of wanting desperately to fly around on a broom and whip up galloping clouds of stags with a magic wand. The filmmakers achieve this rare sensation of otherworldliness with “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”See it. Love it. Remember how beloved is this greatest of human possessions: the imagination.Arts & Entertainment writer Ted Alvarez can be reached at 748-2939 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado