When dealing with almost any hot property, whether it be book series, TV program, or whatever, the filmmakers must struggle with a particularly difficult challenge: how to make a film that can appeal to both the diehard fans as well as those coming in with a blank slate or indifference.
The newest film in the Harry Potter franchise not only faces this accessibility dilemma but also another. This is the fifth film in the series. Can the film work for both those who have seen the previous installments and those who are less familiar with the Harry Potter world?
Impressively the filmmakers of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" have walked these tightropes with great skill.
Having not read any of the books and seen only two of the films ("Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" I think) I found "Phoenix" to be easy to follow and very entertaining.
Those of us who missed the previous film and are not particularly plugged into the Harry Potter universe are able to pick up pretty quickly what happened previously. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon,) headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Wizardry, have encountered Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes,) who has regained a body and his power and returned after 14 years. The magic establishment - represented by the Ministry of Magic - rejects this claim and vilifies Harry and Dumbledore in the magical newspaper The Daily Prophet.
Dumbledore's and Harry's claims are viewed by the Ministry as attempts to conspire against the magical kingdom. To prevent this the Ministry sends in a new teacher at Hogwarts, Dolores Umbridge, who initially teaches the defense against the dark arts course. Gradually she comes to dominate Hogwarts, becoming a tyrant.
Meanwhile Harry secretly forms "Dumbledore's Army," a group of a few dozen Hogwarts students who prepare their magical skills in case of an attack from Lord Voldemort. All the while Harry is fighting another battle, one in his mind. He and Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) work to develop his mind to resist attacks from Voldemort.
The film's tagline on the movie poster really sums up the central theme of the film: "The Rebellion Begins." Perhaps that's the reason why I liked the film so much. Movies of rebellion, where the small and the weak rise up against the oppressive strong are often immensely satisfying when done well. The definitive film of this genre is Lindsay Anderson's "If...." which was just recently released in a spectacular DVD from the Criterion Collection. The character of Dolores Umbridge is such a perfect character for this kind of rebellion. She brings to mind another female authority figure from another quintessential rebellion picture: Nurse Ratched from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." In many ways this antagonist is much more interesting than Lord Voldemort. Fiennes's ultra-powerful wizard is kind of a boring, one-dimensional ultimate evil character whereas Umbridge is a dressed-all-in-pink quiet menace.
One element of the film that's been getting a fair amount of press is a wonderful scene featuring Harry's first kiss. Cinematically the scene is well-choreographed, well-lit, and quite moving. Unfortunately it's almost a fluke of a scene. One would think that such a scene would be with a more richly developed character. You'd think it would go somewhere but it doesn't. I guess the film is just too focused on other things.
Many critics - as well as J. K. Rowling herself - have dubbed this film the best of the series. Perhaps the highest praise that I can reap on the film is that unlike the others that I've seen this one gives me the most motivation to actually read the books. I'd always avoided them, thinking that I might just plow through all of them once the last one was released (something I'll be able to do since the last one is schedule for release in a few days.) In a sense that's reflective of the strength of the film. It creates such an engaging world and compelling story that I'm left wanting more. Thankfully, one of the pluses of "hot property" films is that there's plenty left to explore. The film is only the iceberg's tip.