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Wizards, start your wands: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Harsh Times

By Laura Leon

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Directed by David Yates

The most recent installment of the Harry Potter book-to-movies franchise, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, continued the welcome departure from the Disney-like obsession with big special effects and marketable merchandise taken by Alfonso Cuarón in film no. 3, Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban, by dipping its characters’ toes in decidedly murkier waters, fraught with dangers tinged realistically in things equally scary as monsters and dark witchcraft. That is to say, adolescence and sexual stirrings. I was saddened to see that Goblet’s director, Mike Newell, was not returning to film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, fearing that we’d be again saddled with a filmmaker along the line of Chris Columbus (who made the first two films): workmanlike, yet unoriginal and utterly lacking in the kind of imagination it takes to convert a well-loved story into something that doesn’t just mimic the original, but stands, even sings, on its own.

Fortunately, this new film’s director, David Yates, does not seem to feel the need to return the franchise to its earlier, simplistic days. This is an apt artistic choice, as our beloved hero is now in the throes of adolescent angst. Indeed, he’s nearly as surly as James Dean was in Rebel Without a Cause, what with having to testify before an imposing jury of wizards for having performed magic in presence of muggles, and with his beloved Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) giving him the cold shoulder. And that’s not even mentioning the confusing mixed signals being sent by the perpetually tearful Cho Chung (Katie Leung). Topping it all off, like an unwelcome dollop of turned whipped cream on an otherwise delightful sundae, is the fact that Minister Fudge (Robert Hardy) has installed Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as acting headmaster at Hogwarts, thereby relegating its apprentice wizards to a totalitarian regime not witnessed since Orwell’s Big Brother or Dick Cheney post-9/11.

The filmmakers’ reinvention of Um bridge, from her delightful name to her entirely pink fuzzy attire and down to her collection of commemorative “kitty cat” plates hanging on the wall—the cats meow plaintively as she metes out cruel punishments—is genius, creating far more fear and loathing than possibly—dare I say it?—Voldemort. Little by little, dictate by dictate, Umbridge takes over the school in such a way as to rob every opportunity for creativity, freedom of thought or expression. One particularly frightful scene involves a showdown between the smug Umbridge, who fervently believes in “the Ministry,” and Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith). It’s an encounter in which Donegal, clearly in the right, swoops down to protect the students, only to find herself taken aback by the terrifying enormity of Umbridge’s unbridled power.

Meanwhile, Harry is convinced by erstwhile friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grinch) to begin to secretly tutor a few students in the art of wizardry—something that Umbridge, disbelieving in the return of Voldemort, has banished—in order that they may be able to fight the evil forces that He Who Shall Not Be Named is collecting for one final showdown with good. These scenes are exciting, not just because they show the kids having fun learning how to levitate and practice spells, but because they show Harry emerging as a more mature, if still nebbishy, figure.

Did I forget to mention that Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has been appearing to Harry again, and that nobody, absolutely nobody, believes him? All in all, not Harry’s happiest semester.

The movie’s final showdown with Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Neville and newcomer Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), is exciting in the way it convincingly shows six promising young people banding together. On the other hand, it’s also rather lame, featuring notable talents like Gary Oldman, who returns as Sirius Black, and others stabbing wands in the air toward each other, with special effects filling in the spaces between with lightning-like bolts and such. One can’t help but laugh when thinking about the actual filming of these scenes; indeed, it made me appreciate the utter realism with which my sons go at their own battles with toy Star Wars light sabres.

But what’s special about this Harry Potter—indeed, what makes it the best so far—is not its effects, but its human element. We truly care about these characters, who have grown from precocious tykes to teens with acne, backward limbs and faces not quite settled into adulthood. (Harry’s brilliantly edited nightmares include poignant scenes of his and Hermione’s and Ron’s younger days, which serve to remind us of how simple their earlier quests were, in comparison with fascism and world domination.) This is aided immeasurably by the brilliant addition of Luna, who, like Harry, can see things that others, even Hermione, can’t. What a brilliant introduction to a new era in the annals of Potter, one that has us hoping for more, even while we fear what might come. This isn’t Kansas anymore.

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