“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” marks the fourth consecutive “Potter” movie to have a different man in the director’s chair, which is kind of like playing the child’s game Telephone with a movie property. The father you get down the line, the more the original message gets lost. In fairness to “Phoenix” director David Yates, he has inherited one dark story to bring to life on the big screen, and a long one at that. It contains one helluva throwdown at the end, but getting there is ponderous to say the least, even after cutting the standard 200 pages from J.K. Rowling’s original texts. And call me crazy, but this movie appeared to be on a tighter budget than its predecessors.
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) begins his fifth year at Hogwarts with the entire school thinking he’s a filthy liar. The wizard newspaper The Daily Prophet, under the orders of the Ministry of Magic, refuses to acknowledge the return of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), so they have slimed Harry all summer for claiming that He Who Must Not Be Named is not only back, but responsible for the death of Hogwarts student Cedric Diggory the previous year. Even worse, the new teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts, Dolores Umbridge (the impeccably cast Imelda Staunton), is a Ministry employee, and her approach to teaching the students to defend themselves is purely theoretical. After all, there is no Dark Lord, therefore learning counter spells to protect oneself will not be necessary. Harry cannot abide by this, and forms a secret group called Dumbledore’s Army to teach the students everything he can. But even he cannot fight the disturbing dreams he has every night where he envisions Voldemort taunting him and hurting the people he loves.
For a movie that has the title of “The Order of the Phoenix,” they spend surprisingly little time dedicated to the Order in question, which is surprising given that the Order’s purpose is to save the world. Two scenes take place at the Order’s home base, and neither of them really feels important. One of them, if the rumor is true, is in fact extremely important, but it will seem of little significance while watching this movie. Also, did someone get tight with the purse strings? There are a couple moments that feel downright cheap, given the movie sported a $150 million budget. The opening broom sequence, for one, looks like something from a ‘60s Disney movie, while an effects-heavy chat between Harry and Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) bears no resemblance to a similar chat in a previous movie. Who made this movie, David Yates or the Warner Bros. accounting department?
That is the heart of the problem with “Order of the Phoenix.” The Potter saga is so big, and involves so many characters, that the only way to do the stories justice is to make three-hour epics out of every movie. Since it would be prohibitively expensive to do so, Warners has chosen to streamline the stories to the best of their abilities. Streamlining, in this case, meant a flurry of spinning Daily Prophet headlines, quick-cut flashbacks and nightmares, and roughly 45 seconds of screen time for each character. New character Nymphadora Tonks, for example, is seen but not heard, or even introduced, for that matter. Likewise, Helena Bonham Carter’s crazy Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange is given little to do but cackle like the wicked witch that tried to boil Bugs Bunny. It’s all a bit taxing, which doesn’t go over well in a movie that’s oppressive to begin with (the whole Umbridge subplot pours it on thick). Another small quibble, and I will readily admit that this owes more to my status as a Yank than anything: the movie’s dialogue is as impenetrable as any “Potter” movie to date. Actually, I should qualify that: the children’s dialogue is impenetrable. The adult actors knew how to make it “British” enough, but the child actors could have used a little more guidance.“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is easily the weakest installment of the “Potter” series to date, but it is by no means a death knell for the series as a whole. Yates is remaining on board to direct the next movie, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” and while he didn’t fare too well here, his continued involvement should stabilize things considerably. Even better, Steve Kloves, who did an impressive job adapting the first four “Potter” books for the screen, is back to see the series home. If this is as bad as the “Potter” series gets, it’s a pretty good low-water mark. The problem is that anyone who's familiar with the source material – which is, well, half the world – knows that there was a much better movie to be made.