He Was a Teenage Wizard
Human Touches Make Harry Potter Fantasy Franchise So Engaging
What is it about J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter franchise that stirs the masses to such a boil? What's so compelling about that nerdy boy and his two even nerdier friends in their goofy robes? Charm, namely--charm that arises from a generous concoction of witty style and imaginative plot lines that intersect like threads in a spider web. The movies sort of share this charm. The first two were brewed too flat for most fans' tastes, but the next two were dark and brooding, energetic, and largely lovable. Mercifully, the fifth-- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix--follows in the deep footprints left by directors Alfonso Cuarón's and Mike Newell's more recent ventures.
A glance at the movie's poster is enough to know that director David Yates (who will, incidentally, be directing the sixth installment as well) has maintained the darkly lush visual style first introduced to the franchise by Cuarón in 2004's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. From overcast skies to moody heroes to sinister creatures (and Kreachers), Yates sets a shadowy tone, well-lent to Rowling's tight, smug prose and oversize characters. Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (Black Hawk Down, Gattaca) loops and winds in and out of windows, trees, shadows, and shelves, follows animated paper birds and airplanes, cuts from animals gorging on meat to Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) slurping at a chicken wing. It is in the details that Yates proves his strength, such as the instantly despicable Professor Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) dumping spoonful after spoonful of sugar into her tea, or the blackened burn over the word "Sirius" in the Black family tree. He maintains a strong visual style throughout, placing arguments between faculty members on staircases to move them up and down with their points, and spatially separating Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) on screen from his friends and family to reveal his lonely frustration.
At a length of almost 900 pages, Phoenix is the longest installment of the series and a great deal of material to squeeze into two hours and 18 minutes. Historically, the task of adapting the books to the screen has fallen to Steve Kloves, but he has stepped aside for this project (and only this one--he'll be adapting the sixth and seventh installments), leaving it instead to Michael Goldenberg (Contact, Peter Pan). Goldenberg succeeds, somehow, in cramming most of the plot in, without abandoning anything too precious to be left behind. The Weasley twins (and their grand exit) are present, along with Cho Chang (Katie Leung), Loony, Moony, Grawp (Tony Maudsley), and many of the other surprising details that make for such delightful reading (apologies to quidditch fans, you'll find no spectating here). As a result, the pace is unrelenting, but that adds to the fun, not to mention keeping the kids awake for the lengthy running time.
Besides all the broomsticks and fantastical animals, the books are fundamentally a coming-of-age story about a relatively ordinary boy who undergoes a number of extraordinary trials. Harry, now a teenager, suffers all the emotional baggage that comes with the territory, including angst, crushes, and general surliness. This results in some unfortunate lines of dialogue, which scar an otherwise solid screenplay. (Try not to gag on "You just don't understand!" and "I feel more alone than ever . . . ") Or perhaps you prefer the more portentously delivered "There's a storm coming . . . " and "It's too dangerous!" But Goldenberg gets enough of the rest right to forgive his occasional lapses into the prosaic.
In any piece of fantasy fiction, authors reach their audience through the characters and their interactions. Sagely, Yates and Goldenberg never lose sight of that principle, with extra attention offered to scenes with Harry's godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who remains too scarce in the books as it is, and Harry's other closest confederates. Callow romantic misfires not only offers comic relief but also etch out Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron's characters in subtler relief. And, despite boasting a leviathan budget of roughly $150 million, the movie echoes its printed counterpart in its personal tone and feel, its emphasis on the humanity of its not-quite-human characters. Charming stories start and stop with interesting people that connect in meaningful ways, and it is here that the unbelievers can find their answer as to why the tale of Harry Potter has been so overwhelmingly successful.