Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Maturing Nicely: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

[Reviews of current flicks coming soon. Meantime, with the latest Harry Potter film packing the multiplexes and a certain blogger still unpacking from a refreshing computer-free vacation, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

It’s one thing to grow old, but it’s another thing to grow up. The latest Harry Potter film is the second in the series to receive a PG-13 ranking (up from PG) but it’s the first one to feel truly teenaged. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we’re past the days when buying school supplies (wands, owls, etc.) was cause for excitement, and when success in gym class made for schoolyard heroes (bye-bye Quidditch). Now at Hogwarts, school itself takes a backseat to typical teenage preoccupations: hormones, gossip and the realization that some teachers are simply full of crap.

It’s a natural evolution for a series that is growing in step with its characters. The thematic shift creates a loss, I suppose, for the 8-year-old who is ready to discover the saga at a time when the material has become too dark and edgy (comparatively, at least) for that younger audience. But that’s what DVDs are for. A bigger downfall would be to stunt the characters’ maturation in an effort to hang on to the golly-gee jolliness that, let’s be honest, even the most cheerful of us grow out of (or at least grow tired of) at some point. After years of spinning gleefully on the Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups, Harry and friends are itching for the more frightful Matterhorn. And who are we to hold them back?

Besides, Order of the Phoenix shows that Harry and chums Ron and Hermione are aging quite nicely. Nabbing Daniel Radcliffe to play sweet, innocent Harry was a slam dunk before Sorcerer’s Stone got the series under way in 2001, but who could have predicted that Radcliffe would be an even better fit for the teenage magical wonder? His English skin tones, slight stature and those trademark round glasses continue to keep him the boyish 98-pound-everyman. But over the years he’s developed a strong jaw, broad shoulders and a look of determination that screams “The Chosen One.” This is a hero we can rally behind.

And in Order of the Phoenix, that’s precisely what happens. But not without conflict. Over the course of the first hour Harry is attacked by Dementors, threatened with expulsion for performing magic off school grounds, accused of spreading false rumors about the return of “He Who Shall Not Be Named” and challenged by a new teacher who wants to see Hogwarts run like a Nazi state. Oh, and he’s haunted by nightmares of his face-to-noseless-face meeting with Lord Voldemort from the end of The Goblet of Fire. It ain’t easy being Harry, and he’s got the anguish to prove it.

Yet even though the transitory essence of adolescence is usually highlighted by awkwardness, the Harry Potter series has never seemed so sure of itself. Five movies into an eventual seven-film saga, Order of the Phoenix has every reason to bore us. Spell-casting? Seen it. Quidditch? Seen it far too often. Sorting hat? Please, that’s so 2001! The previous Harry Potter chapter, Goblet of Fire, got a well-timed mid-series boost from the debut of Voldemort, but that leaves Order of the Phoenix like a rookie comedian trying to follow the headliner. With Voldemort out of the bag and the inevitable climactic clash still two films away, this movie has to step carefully. Stay too far removed from Voldemort and all of Harry’s obstacles will feel like trifles by comparison. Give us too much Voldemort and the finale will be doomed to feel like the same-old, same-old.

Impressively, you’d never detect that Order of the Phoenix is under such strain. Nor would you guess that screenwriter Michael Goldenberg managed to squeeze J.K. Rowling’s sprawling 870 page novel into the shortest Harry Potter film yet: 138 minutes. Devotees of Rowling’s books will spot all the changes and omissions, but Order of the Phoenix stands up remarkably well for those of us who know Harry only in celluloid form. The story is lean and focused, investing much of its time on Dolores Umbridge’s efforts to take over Hogwarts and get Harry to shut up about Voldemort, yet it manages to keep the larger plot moving, too.

In a strange way, Rowling may have done this film a service by nearing the 900-page mark. Coming from a story so vast that it had no hope of being condensed as a whole, Order of the Phoenix was forced to streamline. From the very beginning, the biggest fault of these Harry Potter films has been their allegiance to Rowling’s written word. In their worst moments, Harry Potter movies feel like photo albums of adventures rather than adventures themselves. Often, characters or situations will produce instant, knowing reactions from readers in the audience while the rest of us are left to feel like outsiders. It’s obvious, for example, that Hagrid is a highlight of the books, but in movie form he’s yet to endear himself. In Order of the Phoenix, Hagrid’s part is so small that it should have been excised completely.

But that would have incited a riot. As it is, Ron and Hermione take distant back seats in this film, and we learn woefully little about the witchy Bellatrix Lestrange, who provides for a delightfully ghastly Helena Bonham Carter little more than a cameo. Meanwhile, I never could figure out why possession of the crystal ball of proclamation by either Harry or Voldemort would change the nature of its decree. But, hey, you can’t have everything. Order of the Phoenix is a pleasure because of all that remains, mostly some terrific acting. There’s the surprising Radcliffe, the delightfully dependable Ralph Fiennes (as Voldemort) and Alan Rickman (as the scene-stealing Severus Snape), plus the getting-better-too Emma Watson (a still spunky Hermione) and Rupert Grint (a more confident Ron).

But the performance to note is that of Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge. Staunton, you might remember, dazzled with her 2004 performance in Vera Drake, but as unforgettable as that heartbreaking turn was I spent the entirety of this picture failing to attach the actress to the character in front of me. Umbridge is scheming, cruel and possibly downright evil. But she’s unwaveringly pleasant, too. It’s a juicy character, and Staunton clearly relishes the role without chewing the scenery. You might call that good acting. Perhaps you could call it magic.

1 comment:

Avatar said...

Not Harry Potter but I heard this one is the best one out yet.