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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix continues the story of the boy wizard who isn’t actually a boy anymore. Now 15, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is starting his fifth year at Hogwarts Academy. Or at least, he’s supposed to. In the opening scenes, Harry defies the rules by using a magic spell in front of a Muggle (i.e. a regular human). He has done this only because evil spirits called Dementors - presumably sent by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) - have attacked his adoptive brother. The Ministry of Magic tries to expel Harry from Hogwarts, but headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) shows up to provide a proper defense and have him reinstated.

It seems that the Ministry’s leader, Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), is in denial about the fact that Voldemort may be returning. And not only is he in denial, he wants others to be in denial as well. Willing to take up this charge is Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), whom Fudge installs as the new Professor of Dark Arts. She waters down the school’s curriculum, refusing to allow actual magic to be taught to the students. After all, what would they need it for if Voldemort isn’t coming back? Harry and his pals Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are shocked by the change. They secretly assemble an army of peers to study magic in secret as preparation for an eventual battle with the evil one. Hiding this activity from Umbridge proves to be difficult.

Meanwhile, Harry finds himself plagued by disturbing nightmares. The gothic Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) knows what this means, and it’s not good. Despite his general disdain for Harry, he works with the young wizard to prevent what could turn out to be a catastrophe.

There’s more to the plot, but this kind of sums it up in a nutshell. And of course there’s a lot more to come, which creates something of an odd situation. While I definitely like the movie, I don’t think Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the best film in the series because it’s essentially all middle. The basics have already been established, and the conclusion is still in the future. Like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, this is a movie whose basic purpose is to move the story along to where it will eventually need to be. In and of itself, the film does not really provide any kind of payoff.

The earlier Harry Potter pictures managed to come up with some kind of individual conclusion while still remaining part of an ongoing framework. The last one, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for instance, revolved around the issue of whether Voldemort really was alive and planning a return. At the end, Harry got an answer when he confronted the villain face-to-face and battled him briefly. We in the audience had the satisfaction of knowing definitively that Voldemort was thriving, and we saw Harry temporarily banish him. The finale therefore felt satisfying while still moving us in the direction of the next installment. At the end of Phoenix, there is no catharsis. A few crucial pieces of information have been gained by Harry (and by us), and then it’s over.

This must have been the hardest one to adapt for the screen. The Order of the Phoenix was the longest book in the series, yet it has provided the basis for the shortest of the films. In fact, the novel was so long that at one point there was talk of making two movies from it. I haven’t read the book, but I suspect that they trimmed away everything that wasn’t absolutely relevant to Harry’s preparation for the official return of Voldemort. Aside from a thrilling action scene at the end, the picture is unusually talky, and it feels like it has been designed primarily to put things in place that will pay off in the next two episodes.

This isn’t really a criticism of the movie so much as an observation. I am fully aware that the Harry Potter saga is a big book and this is but one chapter. The point I’m trying to make is that, as important and as entertaining as this chapter is (and it’s both of those things), it by nature lacks the kind of emotional satisfaction that the other installments provided. In many ways, this may be the most important chapter so far, but it’s not necessarily able to stand alone as the previous ones did.

This fact does not mean that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is disappointing. Quite the opposite. I am learning this story through the films (although I intend to read the books at some point), and the elements that are advanced this time around intrigue me greatly. While it may not be as thrilling as some of the previous movies, the information you get here is crucial to enjoying the rest of the saga. Call it “calm before the storm” syndrome. You sort of need a little break like this before the grand finale. In baseball terms, you can’t have a good pitch without a good windup. The Order of the Phoenix is a good windup for what promises to be an amazing last act.

Director David Yates is new to the series. He provides some stunning visuals and camerawork, especially in a late scene where the gang battles some escaped Azkaban prisoners in a warehouse filled with floor-to-ceiling shelves of glass globes. Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg also pay attention to the adolescence of Harry Potter, who deepens and grows as a character this time around. Harry, like many adolescents, is impetuous. He questions authority figures, occasionally gives into his temper, and nervously makes an advance toward a member of the opposite sex. Daniel Radcliffe has visibly grown as an actor, and because of him, we continue to want to follow Harry on his journey.

The all-star supporting cast is like a Who’s Who of fine British talent, and they again impress. (Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Oldman, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, and Maggie Smith are all back for more.) The special effects are fantastic, although perhaps a bit overdone in the final moments. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is not a standout entry in the series, but it is a solid one. In general, the earlier films were a little better, and the remaining films promise to be better still. But like I said, you sort of need an expositional installment in order to make the finale as grand as it ought to be. Expositional episodes, by nature, only go so far, and this one does it about as well as it can be done: it gives you what you need and makes you thirst for the next one.

( out of four)

DVD Features: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix arrives on DVD in a single-disc movie-only edition or a 2-disc special edition with bonus features. First among them is “The Hidden Secrets of Harry Potter,” a 45-minute recap of the series thus far. The stars, the filmmakers, and assorted Potter experts assess the themes of the epic tale and how J.K. Rowling’s work has been transferred from page to screen. One of the unexpected delights of this feature is that clips from all five films are shown in close proximity, allowing you to see just how much the actors have grown (physically and performance-wise) in the last six years.

Also included are about 10 minutes of deleted scenes. Nothing crucial was excised, although there are two sequences featuring Emma Thompson doing some good physical comedy that are fun to watch.

“Trailing Tonks” is a behind-the-scenes tour hosted by Natalia Tena, who plays Nymphadora Tonks in the movie. She visits various departments on the set, including hair and makeup, special effects, and the catering truck. Older, more hardcore film buffs may find the surface-only explanation of these departments’ work to be routine, but the feature serves as a great way for kids to be introduced to the intricacies of the filmmaking process.

Finally, there is “Harry Potter: The Magic of Editing,” in which director David Yates and editor Mark Day demonstrate how editing, sound effects, and music can be combined in different ways to achieve various effects. The segment ends with a do-it-yourself editing demonstration that allows the viewer to put together one of the film’s scenes. Although very basic, this does effectively demonstrate what Yates and Day are talking about. (I particularly enjoyed putting cartoony sound effects into a serious scene.)

Stick the disc in your DVD-ROM drive and you can access a Harry Potter timeline, a link to sneaks of the sixth installment, and other bonus materials. Also included is a digital copy of the movie that can be downloaded to your PC or other portable media device.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will additionally be available in HD-DVD and Blu-Ray formats, and those versions contain all the bonus features from the regular DVD version plus more. And, for the hardcore Harry Potter fan in your life, check out the Limited Edition DVD Gift Set – a 12-disc extravaganza containing the 2-DVD version of all five films, plus two bonus discs full of extras. It comes packaged in a collectible “suitcase.”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images. The running time is 2 hours and 19 minutes.

To learn more about this film, check out Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

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