Monday, July 09, 2007

My ramblings on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

What to say about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix?
Well, they cut a lot out. But, the book was 896 pages. To cover it fully, with every detail intact, would take days. At two hours and 18 minutes, they've pared the story down to its bare bones, trading internal monologue and political maneuvering and teen romance for action.
We lose a lot of character beats for supporting characters as well. This means very little at all of Tonks, only a few moments with Luna Lovegood and all of Ron Weasley's big moments disappear with the Quidditch (there's broom flying aplenty, but none for the sake of the game in the film). Harry and Cho's romance is whittled down to a handful of fleeting moments that doesn't even whet your appetite.
If that's going to spoil your appreciation of the fifth film in the Harry Potter franchise, don't even bother going. Keep to your books and appreciate them for what they are. You're likely never going to be happy with the films, anyway.
If you're looking for one of the most fast-paced films in the franchise (nearly dizzyingly so) or some harrowing wizard-on-wizard combat? Well, they've got your number exactly.
David Yates, the director of this fifth film in the continuing adventures of Harry Potter, has a background in British television. He's never helmed a production like this. He's more than up to the task, keeping things lean and focussing the film almost entirely on Harry. He is our hero, after all. That makes the film more like a typical American film than the previous chapters, but it's not like they're ever going to win converts to the series at this point. You're either watching them or you aren't.

The film starts out with Harry at his lowest point. Cedric Diggory is dead. Harry feels responsible. He's isolated once again from the wizarding world and he feels miserable. He's tortured mercilessly by his cousin Dudley and his crew (Dudley now sporting the costume of a chav and looking much the worse for it). Bad things happen, and Harry is whisked away from Privet Drive by the Order of the Phoenix (waste no time in getting that title in!).
Harry's reunited with his friends and presented with a new nemesis: the Ministry of Magic themselves. Turns out that Harry's claims of the return of Voldemort aren't believed by the folks at the top, and they'll stop at nothing to squash out any word of the return of He Who Must Not Be Named.
In pursuit of that, the Ministry forces Dumbledore to accept a new teacher at Hogwarts. Dolores Umbridge, as brought to shocking pink life by Imelda Staunton, is every bit as iron, unbending and unflinchingly evil as she was on the written page. But there's a bit of humanity to the teensy despot now. I almost felt sorry for her. (Damn you and your acting skills, Imelda Staunton!)
Umbridge starts tightening her fist, enforcing the Ministry's new draconian vision. And that vision doesn't include learning any sort of defense against the Dark Arts (Why would anyone need to defend themselves? Rubbish idea, if you ask me). The students take it upon themselves to have a secret class, with Harry teaching what he's learned from fighting for his life over the last four years.
It's with Dumbledore's Army that the film misses out on some of its best potential material. However, we do end up with a training montage, and that has to mean something, right? Can't have an action movie without a montage, I say.
The kids get pretty darn good at their combat spellcraft, and that's a good thing because we're whisked into the finale very, very quickly.
How's the finale? Well, it's big. Really darn big. The Death Eaters really see action this time (the bulk of their attack on the Quidditch World Cup cut out of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), fighting both the D.A. kids and the Order of the Phoenix. And the results are more intense than anything in the series thus far (and earning the film a PG-13 rating).

What's good?
Hmmm. Well, every moment that Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman or Maggie Smith is on screen, to be sure. They've brought their A games, and consequently, they raise the bar for the rest of the cast, who seem more than adequate to keep up. Staunton as Umbridge, of course. She's so close to how I envisioned the character in the book that she made my flesh crawl. She's the perfect combination of malevolent menace and sickeningly proper ettiquette. I really wish we saw more of Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, but he's damn near pushed out of the film until the end.
Jason Isaacs, of course. He's almost always great, though. Ralph Fiennes turns to subtlety to embody the ultimate evil of Lord Voldemort, not going over the top one wee bit. That's left to the batshit crazy Helena Bonham-Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, who gets precious little screen time, but wrings gallons of madness out of her brief moments.
The kids are growing into fine little actors themselves, and Daniel Radcliffe shows signs that his career is going to continue long after he puts the Potter character to rest. Rupert Grint has already proven that, but gets so little time in this one. The budding Ron-Hermione romance is hinted at, but nothing else. Emma Watson also suffers from near-deletion. If she and Ron aren't right next to Harry, they're not in the movie. Evanna Lynch does a marvelous job with her few scenes as Looney Luna Lovegood. She's creepy and weird to the nth degree with seemingly little or no effort.
The humor. This is a really funny chapter in the series. And considering how dark and violent it gets, the humor is a welcome respite from the gloom that the series is delving into.
The effects work is generally good, though I found the centaurs and Grawp a wee bit cartoonish. The final fight is amazing, though. Throwing in visualizations was very necessary, and Yates and company managed to make the wizarding duels exciting and harrowing.

What's not so good?
Well, cutting out three quarters of the book. Duh.
You miss out on a lot of great character moments. "Weasley is our king." The twins' exit from the school (since they've NEVER had Peeves in the films, this was bound to be weaker for his loss). Harry's romantic confusion (though, in his credit, Radcliffe manages to convey some of that without the setup).
The flying scenes. Remember where I said the effects work was generally good? Well, the flying scenes look like they were shot before Star Wars and before Superman: The Movie. The compositing is sloppy -- not even TV quality by today's standards.

You don't need me to recommend the film to you. Either you're going to see it or you're not. You made that decision years ago. While stripped down to its bare bones, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix gets it all pretty close to right. The big moments are all there (including that dreaded third act death). It's just the little things that you end up missing.

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