I’ve rewritten the introduction to this review six times now, and I still can’t come up with a way to kick it off. It shouldn’t be that hard, right? A movie review? About a kid’s book? I mean, it’s not “Lord of the Rings”, is it?

Is it?

Moneywise, the “Harry Potter” movie franchise has been THE most successful franchise in history, garnering nearly $3 billion worldwide with the first four installments. The fifth film, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”, opened yesterday. And being the huge Potter fans we are, my wife and I went.

I’ll dispense with the preamble and get right down to it: “Phoenix” is not only the best of the Harry Potter films to date, it is in my opinion one of the best films I’ve seen in the last 3 years, dating back to “Return of the King”.

Three pieces of this film work to near perfection: the directing, the casting, and the screenplay.

First, the directing. Potter first-timer David Yates steps in to “Phoenix” as its fourth director (Chris Columbus having done the first two, followed by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell). Yates takes a transitional storyline in “Phoenix” and translates it into something truly riveting. Even though this film is the shortest in the series, it somehow feels full of excitement and tension. The camera shots are less of the panorama and fantastical that we’ve been treated to previously and feels much more grounded, and somehow more real. The lighting and special effects really create the feel of a society on the brink of a war.

Casting next. Series co-stars Rupert Grint (Ron Weasely) and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) do well with the screen time they have, although they are mainly background for the plot. Who really shines here is Daniel Radcliffe as the title character. With the focus on Harry’s psyche more than ever, Radcliffe brilliantly portrays this teen struggling with a truth no one else seems to want to accept. The years of near-death escapes and torture has visibly taken its toll on Potter. One of the things I always liked about the books is that even though Potter is the hero, author JK Rowling doesn’t portray him as the proverbial white knight. Harry is troubled, moody, depressed, antagonistic, sometimes bordering on disturbed. All this is wonderfully brought to the screen by Radcliffe (nod again to director Yates on this one as well). All of the other regulars do fine jobs, tip of the hat to Alan Rickman (who always does a great job as Snape), Jason Isaacs (wonderfully evil as Death Eater Lucius Malfoy), and Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid).

But highest kudos belong to two of the new cast members, Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood) and Imelda Staunton (Delores Umbridge). Lynch is PERFECTLY cast as the flighty yet loyal Luna. While accurately showing the vacant, wandering expressions and conversation of Luna, Lynch really captures the true depth of the character. She serves as Harry’s sounding board, someone who can comment on what he’s seen from a third person point of view, yet knows the mentality accompanied by one who has suffered and lost much. Ron and Hermione, best friends though they may be, don’t truly know what he’s going through. But Luna does.

Imelda Staunton is beyond a doubt one of the scariest villains I have ever seen in films. The best “bad-guys” aren’t the ones who outlandishly flail weaponry and scream calamity, but those that keep it on a slow boil under the surface, that metaphorically stab you in the back with a smile on their face and a twinkle in their eye. And brother, does Staunton nail it. As Delores Umbridge begins to assert more and more power over the Hogwarts, you can see the wheels turning, the acknowledgement of power building. I am not the only one who is thinking Staunton could be in line for an Oscar nomination (crazy for a Harry Potter movie, I know, but I’m telling you she is THAT good).

Finally, the screenplay. Admittedly, a lot of material from the book has been removed. The inner workings of the Order of the Phoenix, Ron Weasely’s joining of the Quidditch team, the true nature of the “Prophecy” as pertains to both Harry Potter and friend Neville Longbottom, and so on. But, as an avid Potter reader, I not once felt cheated. Everything vital to the story is included and seamlessly put together. At its heart, this is a film about Harry feeling isolated (a “darkest before the dawn” type of scenario). From friends, from family, everyone. It’s a feeling all teenagers have at one point in their lives; that no one understands them, that no one cares. Except for Harry, the stakes are much higher. Lives are at stake, lives have already been lost. The film doesn’t just solve Harry’s emotions in a cookie cutter like way; in the end, you really see what friendship means.

Finally, I just wanted to offer some personal feelings based on what I’ve seen. It may seem folly by some of you to attach some real-world significance to a fantasy film. But frankly, I’m not sure I care.

This story concerns a society, highly successful and quite content, being told that it’s way of life is in jeopardy. That evil looks to destroy from outside and within. How do you react? Well, a few courageous ones like Potter and company decide that they want to fight. But many don’t want to admit that there is a threat, deny the existence of that evil, even forget evidence that such things ever existed. Here is the basic struggle in “Phoenix”. It wasn’t merely that Voldemort has returned, in fact in this story, it’s more of a sideline. The real threat here is by a government (Ministry of Magic) trying to convince its citizens that nothing is wrong, trying to hold together the fragile pieces of the blinders they have been wearing. It’s not hard to see a connection between Voldemort’s forces and terrorism. It’s also not hard to see a connection between the society of wizards and witches and our own societies in the US and Europe. I would love to continue in this discussion, but after all, this is just a movie review. Suffice to say that “Phoenix” makes you realize that there are causes worth fighting for, worth dying for.

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is truly a fantastic movie. I heartily recommend it.

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