Deeper, darker and shorter, too.
How It Rates: ***
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, Gary Oldman
Red Flags: Fantasy Violence, One Brief Bloody Attack
It has been at least two years since I read the book adapted into the latest Harry Potter movie, and that gave me a chance to look at this film as a film and not an adaptation. As a film, it works just fine, but I know a lot got left on the cutting room floor. The run time of only 2 hours and 18 minutes proves it. I think the makers of the Harry Potter franchise have finally realized they can produce a film that retains the magic and wonder of the novels without a need to slavishly follow every page. Thus, the fifth Potter film is a marvel of economy. It distills subplots down to the bare essentials, making heavy uses of montages and quick cuts. It keeps things moving.
What remains is more than enough for a picture. Harry (Radcliffe) is troubled by disturbing visions as he enters another year at Hogwarts School for Wizardry and Witchcraft. He's dogged by allegations he's fibbing about the return of evil wizard Voldemort, even though he saw the Dark-Lord-who-will-not-be-named himself. This time, you-know-who is trying to get into Harry's mind. But watching out for him is the Order of the Phoenix, a confederation of wizards including Harry's beloved Godfather Sirius Black (Oldman). On the other hand, the school is getting yet another new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), whose last name suggests exactly who she is: a conceited, high-strung, pretty-in-pink busybody who may be channeling a stereotype of Hillary Clinton. But more importantly, she's High Inquisitor, someone brought in to "address the falling standards at Hogwarts," as Ministry head Cornelius Fudge puts it.
Umbridge, like many of her colleagues, isn't convinced you-know-who is back. Worse, she shows no effective desire to educate her budding witches and wizards to defend themselves against his evil powers. Just read it out of the textbook, she tells students, in a "secure, risk-free way." Harry and his friends decide it's up to themselves and form their own class, meeting in secret and learning defensive spells from Harry while Umbridge throws her weight around with directives that alienate just about everybody. Her rule changes fill an entire wall of the school and several shots of film. The Order of the Phoenix suspects Voldemort is after something he didn't have the last time around, something Harry has not been told about. All of this is leading up to yet another showdown between good and evil.
Harry is also showing more signs of his teenage angst and love ambitions, sharing a deep kiss with his girlfriend Cho Chang (Katie Leung). That's as far as the love part gets, but don't worry, we still have plenty of angst. Much of Phoenix plays like teen psychodrama with some special effects thrown in. You can't call this picture a family movie. We don't even have the Quiddich sequences to lighten things up, even though Ron Weasley's older twin brothers get some yuks in. The film is comfortable with its darkness, even if it scares the kids. And with the PG-13 rating, this is no kid flick.
Could the next Potter film earn an R? I don't think so, but the framework is there. Watching Harry and his pals grow up on the screen, I remember seeing the first film in the series, then seeing it again. It came out two months after the 9/11 attacks. We all badly needed an escape into a fun and magical world back then. Now I wonder if we want to remain in it.