Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Review: Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix

The Monk and Monkette went to a midnight (plus one minute) show of the fifth Harry Potter movie last night. We enjoyed what had to be the most difficult adaptation of the series to date -- the source material (that is, the eponymous book) is the longest of the series, even including the concluding version that will be released next Saturday.

The key decision by director David Yates for movie #5 in the franchise was to make the movie completely Potter-centric. This movie is HARRY POTTER and the Order of the Phoenix. Nearly all other aspects of the books, from the various Hermione-Ron flirtations to the (innocent) sexual explorations of the students to the intra-school politics have been stripped. The flavors of Hogwarts (wandering ghosts, twisting staircases, talking paintings) have been minimized. It is a dark movie.

And with good reason. The basic plot points: (1) Voldemort is back; (2) the Ministry of Magic denies this reality; (3) the Minister of Magic is in full Captain Queeg mode fearing that the whole Voldy-is-back concept is a ruse for and by Dumbledore to take over the ministry; (4) the Minister installs dragon lady Dolores Umbridge to control Hogwarts; (5) Voldy's not stopping his plotting just because the Ministry is in a tizzy.

This is the first of the series where the climax substantially differs from Rowling's novel. The battle at the ministry, the Dumbledore-Voldemort showdown and the death of a major character (if you don't know, you're in the small minority) all have identifiable changes from the book. How that will connect in the next two movies will be interesting.

Now, the good/bad/ugly of HP5:

The Good: First, the kids. Emma Watson has been Hermione from movie #1 and done a good job throughout the series. The real improvement is in the boys: Daniel Radcliffe's acting is far better than movies 1 and 2, and he's built upon his improvements from movies 3 and 4. Given the source material in which Harry was constantly angry, truculent or just a royal grump, Yates and Radcliffe show a multifaceted Harry: he's tormented by dreams of Voldemort, feels safe with his godfather Sirius Black, resents being ostracized by fellow students, relaxes with Ron and Hermione, connects with Luna with a natural affection, and transforms into a leader of his fellow students in Dumbledore's Army. Rupert Grint (Ron) is far more natural in this film than his one-note fool approach in movies 2 and 3. And newcomer Evanna Lynch IS the embodiment of space cadet Luna ("Looney") Lovegood. She steals the first scene she's in from Hermione and works well with Harry. Lynch did so well, the director likely cut yards of film from Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley) -- a bit of disservice to that character.

Second, the tone. For all the critics' harping that "the magic" has left the series, Yates strikes the correct tone. This is a DARK book, a DARK time in the series, and a DARK time in Harry's life. It's not time for wonder and wide-eyed ooh/aah nonsense. The first movie served that purpose because it introduced Harry to the world of magic and its wonders; this movie builds toward the ultimate showdown in movie #7.

Third, Imelda Staunton. When I heard about her casting as Umbridge, I thought she lacked physical heft (Umbridge is a real cow in the books) and should have been a great deal uglier. But the first time I saw her on screen as Umbridge, I wanted to shoot the b#tch. Considering that she evokes that sentiment throughout the book, Staunton did well in the role.

Fourth, the effects. Once again, better than the previous movie, and that's good because HP4's effects were solid.

The Bad: (a) The editing was just as disjointed as the major critics claimed, especially in the post-Ministry battle scenes. (b) Quite honestly, Tonks had no need to appear in this film and that's too bad because she's a cool older sister type to Harry in the books. (c) The major character's death was a bit too sudden (although this criticism can apply to the book) and the immediate post-mortem when the killer has a clear shot at Harry is not handled well. (d) The movie simply did not build up to the Voldy-wants-the-prophecy motivation that set up the battle in the Ministry.

Note that I'm not going to cry about the lack of screen time for the cream of British acting like Maggie Smith, Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Finnes, et al. Each one knew s/he would have a limited role in each film so it's not a waste of talent. I'm also not going to carp about Hermione and Ron being relegated to side-kicks like other critics have (one complained that all Ron's scenes had Harry in them . . . so?) -- that's ridiculous because in EVERY OTHER MOVIE that's all they were. The fact is the story is about Harry Potter, not Ron or Hermione.

The Ugly: Grawp. Hagrid's half-brother is simply heinous.

There are big questions for movie #6: (1) can Tom Felton (Draco) handle an enlarged role after basically sitting out the past three films; (2) can the movie avoid the A&E biography-of-Voldemort feel considering that so much of the book is told in flashback; (3) will there be any decent roles for Ron and Hermione considering their relatively small roles in the book; (4) how will the Ginny issue be handled -- she has a MUCH larger role in the story than the past two films hinted at; (5) can the director find screen time for Luna and Neville, each of whom basically only have cameos in the book; (6) who will play Rufus Scrimgeour (Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, or Bill Nighy?), Horace Slughorn (I'd vote for John Rhys-Davies) and the UK's prime minister (would Michael Sheen reprise the role?); (7) how can the director avoid the holding-pattern feel that is probably inherent in the plot of the movie considering all the open questions in the book?

Those are questions for the future. The answer for the present: HP 5 is a solid movie.

Mea Culpa: I originally called Professor Slughorn Hugo, not Horace. And I just re-read Book 6 last month . . .

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