Sunday, November 14, 2010

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (4.5/5)

When last we left our hero, Harry Potter, he had just faced a newly repowered Voldemort 2.0. So it’s a puzzling turn of events when Harry returns to Hogwarts only to discover that he has been branded a liar and that Voldermort’s existence has been vehemently denied by the Ministry of Magic. Harry’s role as an inventor of canards has turned him into an outcast at Hogwarts where the other students look at him askance and openly doubt his story. But even as the Ministry denies the impeding threat, a secret organization called The Order of the Phoenix has set out to defend itself against Voldemort and the Death Eaters.

There are duel villains in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Not only must Harry worry about Voldermort from without, but he must also contend with the Ministry of Magic from within. As is often the case with a new Harry Potter film, there is also a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. This time the new professor, Delores Umbridge, has been generously provided by the Ministry, and she immediately sets changes in the curriculum and the school rules. The Ministry is fearful that Dumbledore is amassing an army of teenagers, so Umbridge does away with all experiential learning, prohibiting the students from using magic in class and relying on textbooks alone.

Delores Umbridge is the type of villain who appears tailor made to get under your skin. She wears bright pink outfits that seem to have been shipped from the early 1960s. She always doles out punishment with a healthy smile on her face. And, she covers the walls of her office with the kinds of collectible plates you can buy at 2am on the Home Shopping Network. Of course, each plate depicts a mewling kitten that actually mewls. As far as movie villains go, Umbridge is once removed from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nests’s Nurse Ratchett. Characters like these are so self-satisfied with their type of oppression, often branded with a smiley face, that the audience cannot help but anticipate their downfall.

In response to Umbridge’s restriction on using magic, the Hogwarts students set up their own secret club where Harry, who has the most experience in battle, teaches his peers how to attack with and defend against magic. After years of Harry being used as a game piece in a series of long cons, it’s refreshing to see him and his fellow students actively prepare themselves against Voldermort and his minions. Not only does this underground magic club help groom Harry into a leader, but it also heals rifts between Harry and his classmates who had come to doubt his warnings about Voldemort.

Harry’s preparation for the battles ahead does not stop with a secret student organization. Dumbledore tasks Professor Snape with preparing Harry against mental incursions by Voldemort. It is still unclear exactly what the connection between Harry and Voldermort is, but it results in a psychic connection between the two enemies that may be used as a weakness. Snape’s training takes on the form of torture, similar to those in the military who undergo different “enhanced interrogation” techniques in order to inoculate them when they are employed by the enemy.

Snape has always been one of my favorite professors at Hogwarts, and it’s not only because of Alan Rickman’s commanding vibrato. Even in the earlier installments, where the line between good and evil was much starker, Snape was a character who ultimately did the right thing despite whatever darkness lingered in him. Here we are given a reason for why Snape is always in such a foul mood. During one of their interrogation sessions, Harry turns his powers against Snape and discovers, hidden in his memories, that a much younger Snape used to be an object of teasing and torture for Harry’s father. Instead of demystifying the character, this bit of back story actually further connects him with Harry. We understand that the two have a shared past, which extends before Harry was even born, and we now know both characters have similar demons festering inside of them.

As Harry admits to his godfather, Sirius Black, he has an anger growing in him. Sirius explains to Harry that there is no such thing as pure good and pure evil, that both exist within us and we must sort them out ourselves. This is a particularly touching scene because not only does it showcase a family connection between Sirius and Harry, but it allows Sirius to explain that he comes from a family of purists who looked down on mudbloods, children who are gifted with magical abilities but one or more of their parents are not magical. Sirius’s speech to Harry can be viewed as defining the difference between the first two Harry Potter films and the subsequent, darker installments.

The tighter structure of The Order of the Phoenix allies it with The Prisoner of Azkaban, which had a similar blockbuster feel. At times, however, it becomes apparent that The Order of the Phoenix had to amputate parts of the book in order to fit the film within the relatively short (for a Harry Potter film, that is) running time. There are many characters who are introduced but never fully positioned within the world. Many of these characters are members of the Order of the Phoenix, and because they serve as Easter eggs for the true fan and to supply depth to the universe of Harry Potter, reminding us that much more is going on beyond the halls of Hogwarts, these characters add rather than subtract from the film. (Although, in one awkward exchange a Goth looking witch tells Mad Eye Moody, without explanation, not to call her Nymphona for reasons that surely can only be deciphered by J.K. Rowling acolytes). However, other characters who occupy more running time appear to be shoehorned into the proceedings. Luna Lovegood, a witch who is a bit touched in the head, serves as a mirror to Harry’s own troubled past, but she’s lumped conspicuously into the story seemingly without reason. Likewise, Helena Bonham Carter’s turn as Bellatrix Lestrange, the cousin of Sirius Black, is too small a part for such a well recognized actress. Both characters may be building towards something more important, but their inclusion here reminds the viewer that we are always receiving part of the story.

Despite the consistent quality of the Harry Potter films, they will always be, in part, companion pieces to the original books. The filmmakers are at once too deferential to the source material, afraid to discard with too much, and incapable of fully realizing the immensity of the books themselves. The Order of the Phoenix is as guilty of this as the other films, but ultimately it showcases one of the most propulsive plots in the series and ends with the most exciting climax yet. Perhaps it would be more than a tad greedy to ask for anything more.

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