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For the first time ever, we have a Harry Potter movie that isn’t an ensemble piece. Unlike any of the films before it, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is focused squarely on Harry. In constructing the film, David Yates said his goal was to make it primarily about Harry’s state of mind. He does that, but takes it so far that he does so to the movie’s detriment.
The film exists, more than any of the others, in sort of a perpetually dim, drab twig light world. We find Harry right from the outset lurking in it, transformed into an angsty, bitter, and hormonal teenager who seems to lash out at anyone and everyone, whether or not he has a reason. As it is in each of these movies, the mysterious dark lord Voldemort has returned and continues to make life hard for Harry. This time he seems to have chosen to do it through the Wizard media. The new Wizard government has decided that Voldemort doesn’t exist, and that for the past couple of years Harry has just made the whole thing up. He’s slandered in the newspapers and used as a political tool, which only serves to make Harry’s newfound teen angst even angstier.
Eventually Harry gets back to the secretive school of Hogwarts where he’s to undergo another year of tutelage. Till then there’s a lot of rushing around and talking urgently, but nothing really seems to happen. The pace doesn’t pick up once he’s at school either, as the movie follows the now perpetually cranky Harry through a needlessly complex political plot which eventually results in the takeover of the school by a new headmistress who can only be described as a sick and twisted sadist. She immediately sets about sucking the life right out of Hogwarts, and all the fun of the previous movies goes missing in favor of a bitchy, pain-in the ass Harry and a boorish, listless, sad school full of mindless, put upon drones.
Most distressing about Order of the Phoenix is how poorly constructed it is as a movie. Harry is the central figure here, with everyone else relegated to the status of Harry Potter wallpaper, but he doesn’t seem to have any specific character arc. It takes awhile for the movie to get there, but eventually some things happen. However you never get the sense that they’ve really had much of an effect on him. Worse, the film is almost impossibly hard to follow for anyone who hasn’t read, studied, and memorized every page of the Harry Potter books. Minor characters and names are thrown out with complete abandon, as if the filmmaker expects us to know the life history of that girl from scene 24 whose name was only mentioned once two years ago. The Potter movies have always ridden that edge catering too strongly to the readers of the books, and sometimes they’ve suffered as movies because of it. Books and movies are different mediums, and the Harry Potter hasn’t always understood that. Yet this is the first of the bunch to completely abandon all pretense of being a decent film, and instead goes straight for blatant, obscure, fan pandering. Anyone who isn’t an obsessive Potter devotee will be completely lost, and though the franchise’s legions will no doubt love it, it’s a pretty lousy film.
The movie really becomes a mess when it tries to take its characters into different locations. It jumps around almost with no respect paid to figure out how the hell any of the movie’s characters got there. When they ride brooms, you never actually see them land anywhere. Instead the movie goes for shots of the riders in the air, and then as if they’re in some sort of bad 70s sitcom they suddenly walk out of the bushes and wave to passers by. When Harry and his friends suddenly show up in a snowy, deserted village miles from Hogwarts, you assume that perhaps they might have taken a broom. But later in the movie, they’re suddenly unable to figure out a way to get to a different location. Well how the hell did you get everywhere else? Aren’t you Wizards? Why don’t you hop on one of those magic brooms that seem to be lying around all over the place? It’s as if the kids go places when it’s convenient for the script, and are unable to find transportation when the movie’s looking for an excuse to make them ride freakish looking zombie because they might look kind of cool. Order of the Phoenix throws out ideas and locations as if we’re supposed to know what’s happening before it happens, with no concern paid to any of the film’s viewers who are just there to see a movie without engaging in a pre-viewing research project using a stack of J.K. Rowling’s books.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix represents a depressing step backward for these movies. Harry Potter newcomer David Yates has sucked the life right out of the room and his characters. The script just doesn’t work unless you’ve got a Cliff’s Notes version of the novels there with you. Also missing along with coherent plot development are any of those really defining moments we’ve gotten in the other films. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban had that great character moment where Hermione punches Malfoy’s lights out. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire had the brilliantly constructed, wonderfully sweet and awkward school dance. Order of the Phoenix has nothing like that, preferring instead to live in a monotone, droning world of blah. Luckily for Yates, though the movie itself is something akin to a disaster it also contains the best performances we’ve seen in the movies so far. Radcliffe’s Potter may be kind of a buzz kill, but he’s good at playing it and does a decent job of carrying the movie on his shoulders. It’s just a shame that the series had to get so bland, do nothing, and dreary in order to get this kind of work out of him.