With shivering hands I put the fifth Harry Potter film in the Bluray player. I absolutely hated this film the first time I saw it, but the big question was, how would it fare right next to the other films? Would it somehow be redeemed?
Only one way to find out: Man up and press "play".
IT'S THE ONE WHERE...
Nobody believes the Dark Lord has returned, a pink furball takes over at Hogwarts, and Harry creates a secret army of students to combat the darkness.
Harry is put on trial by the Ministry of Magic, but he also gets his first kiss! Sirius Black, Mad-Eye Moody and Lupin return to fight the Dark Lord himself, and Helena Bonham Carter shows up as a demented witch!
My suspicion that something was completely wrong with this film started right after the opening scenes.
The film is off to a rather awkward start when Harry is being bullied on a playground by his cousin Dudley, who was so blissfully missing from the previous film. (Once again we enter the land of BULLHORN acting! Honestly, where do they find these people?!) Suddenly two Dementors attack, and Harry must defend himself with a spell, otherwise he would be dead. A little later he gets a letter, unceremoniously informing him that he's now expelled from Hogwarts, because he used magic in public.
Let's stop right there for a second. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's when a film treats me like I'm an idiot! Even within the context of this story, it doesn't make any sense to kick Harry out of school. I mean, I assume we're still operating in a world, where wizards must keep their abilities hidden from the general population. If you had a student who was "out of control" - i.e. using magic in public - surely the first thing you would do would be to try to control him, rather than throwing him out of the ONE place, where you had a chance to prevent him from doing anything improper?
The film obviously wants to create a feeling of a hostile world, where Harry must face great opposition, and that's fine, but please do it with an iota of common sense! I don't know how much of this is due to the original novels, or the screenplay adaptation of them, since I haven't read either. It could also be the fault of the director, either way I'm just going to refer to this as "bad writing".
After that fumbled opening a team of wizards arrive to save Harry from suburban mediocracy and overacting. They take him to the secret headquarters of the Order of the Phenix. Here powerful wizards hold secret meetings, they talk about an upcoming war, and all kinds of exciting stuff, but no one wants to tell Harry the whole truth. This is more like it! This is what we've been working towards. An expansion of the wizard world and the inevitable big showdown with the Dark Lord. Maybe I judged the film too quickly...?
The bad writing continues to plague the film in the following sequences where Harry is brought to a hearing at the Ministry of Magic. This sequence is so clumsily designed that it makes the Monty Python rendition of the Spanish Inquisition seem subtle. The minister refuses to believe Harry's story, brushes the death of (SPOILER) off as an accident, while a red cloaked chorus of followers nod in agreement. How exactly did we get from a fairly serious fantasy world, to a fascist society that seems almost cartoonish evil?
So virtually nobody believes Harry? Right! That's the kind of moronic writing that may have looked good on paper, but the reality is that there's nothing worse for a viewer/reader. This renders the entire third act of the previous film meaningless, because the return of the Dark Lord was the whole point of that showdown! As viewers we've SEEN the return of the Dark Lord with our own two eyes. We KNOW it happened. So to spend two hours in the company of people who blatantly refuse to believe it, as if some mass hypnosis had affected the entire magic community, is incredibly frustrating.
The behavior of the minister and everyone associated with the cause is so head-slappingly stupid that it breaks my heart. The film fails to establish any reasonable understanding or sympathy for the opposite side of the argument. All we get is some nonsense that the minister is "mad with fear", because he thinks Dumbledore wants his job.
Now, if the point of the conflict was HOW do we battle the Dark Lord, it would make a hell of lot more sense. It shouldn't be difficult to build up a realistic drama surrounding this very serious situation, but instead we get this ludicrous sequence of events, which utterly violates the universe constructed by the other movies.
But we're not done yet.
Enter Dolores Umbridge, played by Imelda Staunton. She's part of the Minister's entourage, and she's appointed to a key position at Hogwarts. Soon she takes over the whole school. I don't know who's most directly responsible, Staunton, the director, or the writer, either way, creating such an abomination of a character should be punishable by death. Every single moment this character is on screen is annoying. EVERY facial expression she makes is exaggerated. EVERY line she says is stupid. EVERY action she performs is frustrating.
First she takes over the Defense Against the Dark Arts classes, and proceeds to completely ruin the curriculum. Later she's allowed to physically TORTURE students, and if that wasn't bad enough she also DRUGS them so they tell her all their secrets! Give me a break! She's evil and vicious, for the sake of being evil and vicious, because it serves the purpose of the story, not because it makes any kind of sense.
Hogwarts is populated by very smart, responsible, and caring adults, we've already established that, and yet her actions go virtually unchallenged! Oh sure, there's a little "debate" here and there, as if her actions - which, again, includes actual torture - were merely a question of different methods of education.
This is what I mean by BAD WRITING. And if that isn't insulting enough for you, how about the way the character is designed?! Everything she wears is pink, her office is pink, even her bloody tea, and the sugar she puts in it, is pink! What the hell?! You see it's IRONY. The character is a goose-stepping nazi, so when we dress her in cutesy pink, it's a contradiction! See how clever that is...? Somebody hand me a bat!
Luckily Umbridge is pushed to the sidelines for a large portion of the story, giving the film a chance to breathe, but we're stuck with her for most of the film. Her final comeuppance is too weak, and badly conceived, but then again nothing short of being ripped to shreds slowly, or burned alive, would have been sufficient at that point.
In the face of all this, all I can do is thank The Maker for Daniel Radcliffe! In the midst of all the magic and all the hoopla, it's easy to forget that everything here revolves around this young actor. He delivers a straight-forward, no nonsense, honest portrayal of Harry Potter. Harry gets an interesting new dimension, when he begins to fear that he has a little too much in common with the Dark Lord, and Radcliffe takes full advantage of this. He could have hammed it up, but instead his approach seems to come from a very real place, without any distortion. "I feel so angry all the time", Harry confesses calmly. Instead of clinching his fist and acting TO the camera, Radcliffe has apparently found the right motivation, and he never gets too big.
When we get into the later sequences, where Harry must step up and teach the other students how to defend themselves, the film reaches its emotional high-point. This is also thanks to Harry's crush on fellow student Cho Chang, whom he actually gets to smooch! The subsequent scene where Harry tells Ron and Hermione about the kiss is a sorely needed return to the bond between the trio that the third film established so well. Thank God for the life spark this part of the story provides to the film. It's the sole reason it's bearable.
Along the way, when he's feeling most isolated, Harry finds a kindred spirit in another outsider, fellow student Luna Lovegood, played by Evanna Lynch. She's a wonderfully bizarre little thing - a fascinating character. She's floating through the film, seemingly disassociated from reality, and talks as if she's always fifty percent preoccupied with watching the magical animals the rest of us can't see. Which, ironically, she is!
Helena Bonham Carter is the sole new celeb addition to the cast. She plays Bellatrix Lestrange who'll become a very important character indeed. Unfortunately her rendition consists merely of laughing like a maniac. A frustratingly inadequate characterization. I get the feeling Bellatrix is supposed to be a very scary character, but she's not in this film.
Gary Oldman returns to the film as Sirius Black, after being (almost) absent from the fourth film. I've missed him. He only has a couple of scenes to make an impression again, but he does. That guy is a charming devil when he wants to be. I really wish this character was more present in the story.
This leads us to the climax of the movie, a spectacular three-part showdown between the untrained wizards and the Dark Lord himself. There's magic in the air (no, not in a Phil Collins kind of way)! Spells are flying left and right, people materialize and vanish, wands are waved. There's also some nonsense about a prophecy and a little glass ball, which we haven't heard about before, but that's not too important. Once the action starts it's easy enough to keep up. I do think that the three separate fights tend to bunch up a little. There's no breathing room between them, so the whole thing feels a tad rushed. Still, the sequence is quite effective, and there are some very interesting developments along the way!
Before we wrap this up I want to quickly cover the visual effects, which are pretty damn solid in this film. One sequence impressed me more than others, and one disappointed me. The sequence set in The Department of Mysteries is the impressive one. It takes place in an enormous hall with rows and rows of shelves, each filled with glass globes. Everything here is created in the digital realm, and I think it's a perfect example of how virtual sets have a place in modern filmmaking, you don't have to go all "George Lucas" to use this technique.
Unfortunately the film is also marred by one really disappointing effect sequence. It's the one with the baby giant, the CGI baby giant, of course, which is only slightly more convincing than the baby from Tin Toy (1988). Why, oh why? We were doing so well! It's like they're doing this on purpose, just to piss me off! It's sequences like this that sets us back 10 years.
Revisiting this film was every bit as frustrating as I had originally feared. It's a giant hairy mole in the face of the Harry Potter franchise, and each time I've wanted to watch the films again, this is always the one that stops me.
There are a few points of light in the dark, murky pit of stupidity that is The Order of the Phoenix, but they are too few to justify its existence. I suggest we all try to forget this film, and from now on simply refer to it as the film that shall not be named.
No sense in beating this rotting old horse carcass more than we already have. Perhaps there's hope to be found in the sixth and final Harry Potter film of this series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009). Let's prey the darkness doesn't prevail. For Harry, and for us.
Feature running time: 138 minutes
Number of pages in novel: 766
Hermione Hotness Factor: 2/10
The Weasley Twins Creepiness Factor: 3/10
Voldemort-o-meter level: 6/10. Too much grandstanding and colorful lightning bolts. Oh, and he's temporarily dispatched with "love"!
The young wizards pick a fight at The Ministry of Magic.