A film review by Craig J. Koban


2007, PG-13, 138 mins.

Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliffe / Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint / Hermione Granger: Emma Watson / Minerva McGonagall: Maggie Smith / Albus Dumbledore: Michael Gambon / Severus Snape: Alan Rickman / Dolores Umbridge: Imelda Staunton / Bellatrix Lestrange: Helena Bonham Carter / Rubeus Hagrid: Robbie Coltrane / Lord Voldemort: Ralph Fiennes / Sirius Black: Gary Oldman / Alastor Moody: Brendan Gleeson / Vernon Dursley: Richard Griffiths / Lucius Malfoy: Jason Isaacs

Directed by David Yates / Written by Michael Goldenberg / Based on the novel by J.K. Rowling

I have been waiting - oh, have I been waiting - for the HARRY POTTER films to build to some exciting plateau and become something truly grand.  In the newest entry, HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, young Harry is not quite so young anymore.  Gone is that cute, naive, bespectacled tyke that we saw in the first few films.  Now, he is an older, bulkier, brooding, darker, and hairier Potter.  Certainly, the character has definitely grown and matured before our eyes over the last seven years.

It’s just a pity that the stories he populates have not matured with him.

I have had unreservedly mix feelings about the entire HARRY POTTER film franchise.  I have fond memories of the first installment, 2001's THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE, which had its rough edges, but nevertheless was a delightful, spirited, and pleasant introduction to the Potter universe.  Then came 2002's THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, the best of the entire series in the way it genuinely improved upon the original film.  Unfortunately, the franchise has been in a tailspin ever since.  2004's THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN introduced us to an edgier and more ominous Potter universe (thanks largely to director Alfonso Cuarón). That was followed by 2005's THE GOBLET OF FIRE, equally as bleak and dour as AZKABAN.

The last two Potter films were absolute triumphs of technical wizardry and top notch production values.  Certainly, the HARRY POTTER films are opulent eye candy that stir the imagination.  Yet, these last films lost much of the color and innocence that permeated the first two - and more successful - films in the series. THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE and THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS had a sense of fun with their stores.  AZKABAN and FIRE lacked a strong sensation of uplifting euphoria and wonderment that great escapist fantasies should elicit.

Perhaps even more noteworthy is the fact that these two films reveal their stubborn and slavish support of the source material.  Of course, you’d have to be living under a rock to not know that the HARRY POTTER series is the brainchild of English author J.K. Rowling.  She has written seven books based on the boy wizard - six have been released, the seventh is to due out in late July.  To say that these books have been gigantic international successes would be a grand understatement.  The six books have sold an astounding 325 million copies worldwide and they have been translated in 63 different languages.  Rowling herself has become the highest earning novelist in literary history.  These books have a following that go beyond the lazy definition of a "cult"; they have an obsessively loyal fan base that borders on dementia.

Yet, perhaps that’s why the last two films have not worked for me.  To all of the raging Harry-ites, these films obviously were enjoyable and entertaining (they are essentially critic proof when it comes to its legions of its fans), but what about the agnostic Harry-ite, like me?  Clearly, all of Rowling’s fanatic followers have read all of the books and have the somewhat unfair advantage of knowing precisely where each entry is heading.  Yet, what works for literature does not necessarily work for a successful, single filmgoing experience.  More than anything, I have found the last two POTTER films feel more like perfunctory placeholders for potentially more meaningful entries than worthwhile, standalone films.  If anything, the last two films felt curiously disposable.  Nothing much actually happens to the characters in them.  They build and build to achieve some sort of forward momentum, but they fail to payoff in any meaningful or satisfying way.

THE ORDER OR THE PHOENIX - the fifth film based on Rowling’s longest book in the series - sort of revels in these same sort of puzzling inadequacies.  Like the previous four films, it’s visually arresting and is filled with sights to behold, but there still remains a lack of a tight and taut storyline.  It once again - as did the last two films - feels more akin to providing viewers with overwritten plots and underdeveloped characters.

The film never really fosters a palpable level of intrigue or tension because it is nothing more than a series of awkwardly assembled vignettes that want to build towards a triumphant and rousing climax.  Regrettably, by the time the film slumbers to its action packed third act, I felt more restlessness than excitement.  When the credits rolled by you never once sense that anything  new has happened to Potter and his motley crew of teen magicians.  They start the film fearing that a war between them and Lord Voldemort is eminent, they prepare for battle, he appears in the final minutes of the film, disappears, and then they again realize that they will have to prepare even more for a larger battle.  Films like this should not feel so mechanical and mundane.

I know...I know...but PHOENIX is based on the book.  And...yes...I know that these books tell little snippets of a larger overall story.  But...maybe...just maybe...these films suffer because of their source material?  My job is to review what I see, not whether or not the film is a good adaptation of the source material.  What this series needs - and needs desperately - is a real jarring jolt of rejuvenating freshness to help it escape from its routine stories that lack urgency.  What’s sad to see is that PHOENIX (and the two previous films leading up to it) have such a episodic feeling that don’t really do anything to expand upon the Potter universe.  Again, maybe that has everything to do with Rowling’s books and the films’ staunch willingness to duplicate them.  But, the undermines each individual film and their effectiveness. 

These films could definitely benefit from some diversion away from the novels.  Instead of telling the stories of each one, maybe they could have been streamlined into one film.  Walking out of PHOENIX I categorically felt that the last three films could have been truncated into one stronger film.  They all have such a languishing sameness.  Honestly, has Potter himself changed all that much since THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS?  Yeah, he’s older, wiser, and more world-weary in a teen angst kind of way, but his issues remain the same.  New angles are required to make Potter a more thrilling and interesting protagonist.  Instead, PHOENIX is a film that simply does not stand well on its own feet.  It has no real beginning, middle, or an end. Instead, we get set pieces, a lot of flashbacks and references to previous episodes, and unless you are a Harry-ite drinking in every minute of this film’s posturing, then you will be squirming an awful lot.

At least this new film starts in an intriguing manner.  In its opening we see a much older Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe, still wooden and lacking strong charisma in the lead role, but nevertheless adequate) and his cousin Dudley have a family spat.  For reasons once again unexplained, Harry continues to live with his emotionally and physically abusive aunt and uncle during the Hogwarts off-season.  Why - oh why - does he continue to do so?  Where is social services?  Aw...never mind.  Anyway, during a particularly nasty argument both Harry and Dudley are attacked by Dementors, which look like rejected monster extras from the MUMMY films.  Just when it seems like they are going to suck the life energy out of both of them, Harry whips out his wand and before you can say "presto" he vanquishes them.

But...wait a tick...using magic in the normal world is explicitly forbidden by Hogwarts.  I am not altogether sure for the rationale behind this.  Why train at a school of witchcraft when you can only use you powers in and around the school?  What not use these otherworldly powers for good?  Certainly, the UN could use more peacekeepers.  Not only that, but why would the Hogwarts upper brass not want to use their collective might to stop violence, bloodshed, and strife in the world?  The Iraq War would be over in day in Harry and company could fly in, raise their wands, and charm the combatants into lowering their arms.  Maybe they could also locate those mysterious wmd's with a spell or two?

Even so, Harry is threatened with expulsion from the school, despite the fact that he was defending the life of another boy and saved both of their lives in the process (Note to Hogwart superiors: If Dementors are coming to dement your ass, then a wizard has the right to use magic in defense).  Needless to say, Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gabon) comes to his defense and Potter is predictably vindicated, but his reputation is tarnished.  Potter himself has had a nasty upbringing to this point.  He was essentially chosen in childhood to become a wizard because of his special abilities and later discovers that his parents were killed by the vile and corrupt Lord Voldemort.  Voldemort’s return to the living world is imminent, and Harry knows this, which is perhaps why he now lives a bit on edge.  However, no one around him, except his closest friends, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine Granger (Emma Watson) believe him.  Oh, he still has support in the form of headmaster Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Professor Moody (Brendan Gleeson) and Sirus Black (Gary Oldman).

Yet, despite this star-studded faculty and their support of Potter, The Ministry of Magic senses a conspiracy (huh?).  As a result, they send Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, in the film’s only great and inspiring  performance) to Hogwarts to start an inquisition to find out what’s happening.  She is a real cauldron of introverted rage and animosity, who constantly hides her ferocity with a cute smile and a sunny disposition.  She, of course, sets her sights on discrediting Harry via any means necessary.  She eventually assumes power at Hogwarts to the point of placing herself as a dictator of sorts, drumming all sorts of ridiculous decrees regarding school policies (she obviously went to the same prep school as Nurse Ratchet from ONE FLEW OVER THE COOKOO’S’ NEST).

Alas, Voldemort lurks in the background and his return is around the corner, so Harry and his buddies secretly gather other Hogwarts students and begins to train them himself to wage a future war against the dark lord.  Meanwhile, Severus Snape (the always droll and fun-to-watch Alan Rickman) tries to train Harry to block out Voldemort from his mind.  Predictably, all of this culminates with a big final showdown between Harry’s squad and Voldermort, the latter who has some help on his side in the form of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, terribly underused here).

THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX - like the previous entries in the series - has a new man behind the camera.  Mike Newell was offered the job after helming THE GOBLET OF FIRE, but he turned it down and in stepped David Yates, who previously directed the edgy and emotional TV drama SEX TRAFFIC.  The script was also written by a newcomer, Michael Goldenberg, who replaced Steve Knowles.  Like the other directors in the series, Yates seems equal to the task of giving PHOENIX a consummate professional sheen. The Potter films will be lovingly remembered as great visual odysseys. The art direction and effects remain top notch, as expected.

Yet, Yates and Goldenberg still have not found a way to make this material more compelling and intrinsically alluring.  As stated, PHOENIX feels more like transition film, which, to lay audience members, will make it feel more tedious than it should.  Yates certainly makes this Potter the darkest entry to date, but is so awash in dreariness that it all but forgoes any of the early films’ sense of spunk and whimsicality.  And then there is the film's magnificent British cast, who - for the most part - are curiously left on the sidelines.  Only Imelda Staunton emerges as the film’s most conniving creation.  She plays her part with such a pitch-perfect level of audience-hating vindictiveness.  She steals the show.

She also makes for a much more scary and creepy villain than Lord Voldemort himself, who once again is reduced to more of a unsatisfying cameo.  He appeared all-to-briefly in THE GOBLET OF FIRE and is also misused in PHOENIX.  The great Ralph Fiennes steps in and returns to fill the dark lord’s shoes, but Voldemort is nothing more than a shadowy and enigmatic villain and not a full-blown and weighty presence in the film.  His character has been built and hyped during the series, but he curiously remains a non-entity.  When he finally makes an appearance and then quickly dissipates again into the shadows, it’s such a dramatic letdown.  These POTTER films deteriorate in some ways from their insistence on not making its main villain a real menacing figure in the foreground.  We are told endlessly about him and that he should be an antagonist to fear, but I think it’s high time the series really starts to explore and show the character more.

Granted, the film is based on the book, so I am certain the Rowling obviously has big plans for all of the characters.  However, there should reach a point where the escalating expectations of readers (and audience members) should be dealt with and gratified.  The Potter films started with great promise, but slowly began to get sidelined within their own cumbersome narrative shortcomings.  Too much time from the last few films have been squandered on repetitive and moot plot elements.  As I did with my review of GOBLET OF FIRE, I left PHOENIX asking for more out of this universe.  What it needs is a kick-start in new directions.  How about a film about what Harry does outside of Hogwarts during his summers off?  We know what happens during his school years.  What does he do in his spare time? Harry working at McDonald’s flipping hamburgers during his summer sabbatical to make end’s meat or him going to the beaches of Miami for spring break.  Okay, that sounds lame, but at least it would be new territory. Okay, that sounds lame, but at least it would be new territory.

Instead, we get the same themes and story points pounded over our heads in PHOENIX: Potter is tormented by Voldemort, Voldermort pledges to return, Potter prepares for his return, Voldemort returns and leaves, Potter again is left with dealing with Voldemort possessing his thoughts and - in turn - must prepare for his return...again.  When a series is on its fifth outing, regurgitation of past stories is the last thing that needs to occur.  THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is surprisingly banal because of this.

The longer I sit through the HARRY POTTER series the less and less patient I have grown for awaiting it to achieve the greatness that the first two films promised it would live up to.  Instead of projecting itself confidently forward, HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX seems inclined to repeat the same faults that beset THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN and the more recent THE GOBLET OF FIRE.  With a disjointed, meandering, and overly convoluted narrative that reeks of a repetitive sameness with previous entries, PHOENIX fails to take the characters and their stories to any new, refreshing levels.  By the time the film ends you gain an overwhelming sense that nothing noteworthy has transpired from throughout its 138 minutes.  As the credits roll by we feel like we are right back where it began.  More than any other film in the franchise, PHOENIX left me feeling like an outsider.  Whereas the great escapist fantasies lure your into their magical worlds, the last three HARRY POTTER films have been pushing me away.  Instead of inspiring endless wonder and amazement, HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX does a marvelous job of promoting restlessness.  With the thought of not one, but two more films on the horizon, I for one am starting to see these films more as cinematic endurance tests. Instead of ascending to higher levels and moving forward as great sequels should, the POTTER franchise seems lodged by its elephantine sluggishness.

What it needs is a touch of magic.


CrAiGeR's other



Harry Potter and the PRISONER OF AZKABAN  (2004) jj1/2

Harry Potter and the GOBLET OF FIRE  (2005) jj1/2

  Harry Potter and the HALF BLOOD PRINCE  (2009)  jj

Harry Potter and the DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1  (2010) jj

Harry Potter and the DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2  (2011) jjj

And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of HARRY POTTER films:












  H O M E