July 18, 2007 12:00
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the most grown-up film of the series so far ' if by grown-up, you mean flat-out boring.


Harry Potter movies should not have pacing problems. J.K. Rowling has written each of her wizard-world wonders with such breathless charm and flawless storytelling acumen that each has been impossible not to devour almost at first sitting. Page one turns to page 100 in scarcely more than a blink; at any given moment, there's so much going on and so much being said that the Potterverse truthfully can't be bound by glue and paper, but leaps full-blown into the mind's eye.

Imaginative, instantaneous and inventive, the development of the Rowling oeuvre has been the making of a modern-day myth. Maybe that's why Hollywood is having such a hard time turning her work into a decent movie series. The lugubrious, life-sucking Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix makes Tinseltown's record 1-5. Not even Dumbledore on his best day could find a silver lining in that, so what are us Muggles supposed to do?

There are myriad possible reasons for the spectacularly mediocre run of Harry Potter movies. Rowling is as much a painter as she is a wordsmith. She's already welcomed her readers into a thoroughly visualized, minutely detailed and described world, leaving less room for her cinematic adapters to wow audiences. The kids cast is growing up too fast; their acting abilities are sadly not maturing at the same (or, for some of them, any) rate.

But the biggest problem perhaps is that there have been too many cooks in the kitchen ' and only one (Prisoner of Azkaban's Alfonso Cuaron) whose playful artistry has complemented the tale he was tasked with telling. Part of the reason the Lord of the Rings films worked so well is because director and writer Peter Jackson and his collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens really, truthfully understood the magic of those books and got to stick around long enough to make sure that magic came to life on-screen. Potter unfortunately got off to a bad beginning and has struggled ever since, changing writers and directors but never consistently improving. The films would be fine if Harry was just another Happy Meal hand-out. A myth man in the making , he was supposed to be more.

The utterly pedestrian Chris Columbus (Home Alone) partnered with writer Steve Kloves to produce two films (2001's Sorcerer's Stone and 2002's Chamber of Secrets) that made Harry's world slick, silly and simple. Kloves never has captured the vivacious wordplay of the novels (or their particular brand of wide-eyed wisdom), but director Cuaron (Children of Men) salvaged another of his mush-mouthed scripts for 2004's excellent, lushly filmed Azkaban. Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) made a less-than-overflowing Goblet of Fire. And now British television director David Yates turns out one yawner of a flick in Order of the Phoenix, working with a script written by the ' is it possible? ' worse-than-Kloves Michael Goldenberg (Contact).

The storm clouds that have been gathering above the heads of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are just about ready to burst as the Hogwarts school year begins. Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is back, but a fear-based disinformation campaigns threatens all those who would sound the alarm. Harry's integrity is called into question, and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) finds his status as Hogwarts headmaster threatened by the Ministry of Magic, in the pastel-pink form of Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). With the teeth taken out of Hogwarts' classes, Harry and his stalwarts practice magic on the sly; all the while, a new connection between Harry and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named becomes clearer all the time.

The Order of the Phoenix is the novel when Harry begins to grow up, and its filmed version is a stab at depicting that passage. The opening scene ' Harry harrassed by neighborhood toughs until bigger, badder, more supernatural bullies come along ' bathes in a jaundiced light and feels more like a teen horror movie than anything in the series has before, save Cuaron's introduction of the deadly Dementors two films ago. And yet, that uneasy vibe slowly dissipates over the course of the film; the ultimate showdown (every film has one, so that's no spoiler) fizzles. It looks good enough at times, but there's no emotional heft or momentum. What there is is repetition and a kind of short-changing shorthand that guts the book's value.

The adults ' the aforementioned Gambon and Staunton, plus the remarkable Alan Rickman and Gary Oldman ' powerhouse their way through the script, at times lifting the wan writing to a place where it's actually watchable. But the kids just can't keep up. It feels like Radcliffe might be able to, if the scenes ever gave him any room to breathe, but he's asked to cram too much emotion into too small a space, and it never works. Grint and Watson overstayed their acting welcome about four movies ago, and the overall production is really starting to pay for that sad fact.

With all of this arrayed against it, Phoenix simply can't rise from its own ashes.

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