A lot of times these days, I’ll find myself in some summer-event movie — say, “Pirates Of The Caribbean” — and think, “Gee, I really would have loved this when I was 12.” Tastes obviously change as you grow older, for better and for worse, but to try and hang onto your 12-year-old tastes forever means you end up in a state of arrested development. Not to mention that it’s also rather embarrassing to be into action figures when you’re an adult (See “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.”).
Still, there are times when I feel maybe I’ve lost something, some ability to make that leap of imagination and really give in to those fantasy worlds of Narnia or Gotham City. Then, I’ll see the latest installment in the “Harry Potter” series and realize, nah, it’s not me, all those other films really do suck, and it’s “Potter” that leaves me feeling 12 again.
The series isn’t just an adult tale patronizingly dumbed down for kids — like “Pirates” or “Spiderman” — but a tale that is about childhood and the loss of it, even as it moves into realms of high fantasy. Unlike the competition, it has real emotions. This may be why author J.K. Rowling’s novels, on which the films were based, inspired so many adults to start reading children’s books again. They awaken something lost.
So I’m happy to report that the latest movie in the series, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” is as irresistibly entertaining and magical as any so far. It’s also more intense and darker, a direction that the series has been moving in since film No. 3, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” There’s no time for Quidditch here.
The film signals this nightmarish quality literally from the start. After losing his temper at a merciless bully who had been teasing him about his dead parents, Harry pulls out his wand in anger (Freudians, desist), the sky darkens, the wind picks up, and a pair of dementors come swirling out of the sky looking to suck out the souls of Harry and his tormentor.
After a narrow escape, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and the film settle down into a well-worn groove. Harry’s chewed out by his bovine relatives, then prepares to return to Hogwarts for another semester of magical instruction. Only one problem: He’s been expelled.
With the help of a few friends he makes his way back to school, where some things have changed, and some haven’t. Harry’s friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) still stand by his side, but other students don’t believe his warnings that the dark lord Voldemort is back. (See the last reel of “Goblet of Fire.”) Familiar elders like Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) are back, but so are the nasty types like bully Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and sinister professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). As usual, there’s a new professor of defense against the black arts, but she’s a horrid disciplinarian by the name of Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, playing 180 degrees opposite her role in “Vera Drake.”)
Umbridge is particularly peeved that Harry is going around talking about He Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken. She punishes him, and then refuses to actually teach self-defense because, in her view, there is no threat to defend against. She’s told to enforce this head-in-the-sand policy by Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, and she even usurps headmaster Dumbledore to do so. A group of worried students, led by Harry, band together to study wand magic in secret.
Harry has troubles of his own, though: repeated terrifying dreams lead him to believe that Voldemort has established a connection to his mind. Severus Snape teaches Harry how to defend against it: In the film’s best scene, Snape repeatedly enters Harry’s most private memories until the pupil turns the tables. Entering Snape’s mind, he finds something that surprises him, and he learns why Snape has had it in for him, and how you can’t always tell what motivates people.
“The Order Of The Phoenix” builds to a dazzling climax, with a sorcerers’ duel amid a dizzying maze of corridors, with people dissolving into smoke and firing blasts of white-light at each other. Director David Yates manages to create a real sense of tension and fright; the feeling that any of our heroes could be slain at any moment . . . and sure enough, one does go down.
This film does so many things right, it’s hard to say what to single out for praise. The acting, while usually one-note, is impeccable. Each character is drawn in bold strokes, confidently and effectively. With the cream of British talent on board, this is no surprise — Rickman’s doom-voiced Snape, and Staunton’s malignantly smarmy Umbridge are the standouts — but even the newcomers just do it; check out Evanna Lynch as the elfin, spacey little Hogwarts’ student Luna Lovegood. Absolutely natural charisma on display here, and this Tim Burton fan read the book, decided she had to play this part, and beat out 15,000 other applicants for the role.