2007. David Yates
I would not describe myself as a fan of the Harry Potter series. It’s not that I have an active dislike for the franchise either, it’s just that I’m passively apathetic about it. Despite this however, I have somehow found my way into seeing all five of the Harry Potter films, including the last three in the theater. I should probably begin by saying that I find the first two films to be completely unwatchable. The direction is flat, the stories are stupid and the acting by the three lead children is abysmal. Then the third film came along and changed everything. Alfonso Cuaron added a visual flair that not only complemented the story, it nourished it and his work with the now teenage actors was leaps and bounds ahead of what Chris Columbus had accomplished. It was also evident that J.K. Rowling was beginning to hit her stride with the third book, making the story less about some ridiculous thing (a Sorcerer’s Stone or a Chamber of Secrets) and more about the characters and overall battle between Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter. The fourth film was also imaginatively directed and featured another complex, relevant story but dragged on a bit and only found it’s emotional footing in the last reel. Where the first two films had absolutely wretched climaxes, the third and fourth excelled at these points and really showed that Rowling and the directors could keep us excited for what was coming next while satisfying us for now at the same time. Now we have newcomer David Yates directing the fifth film in the series, The Order of the Phoenix.
Any doubt that Yates couldn’t handle such a big budget endeavor with only Television under his belt is quickly squashed because the film is directed with an assured hand and eye. The visuals are always interesting and his pacing is some of the best we’ve seen yet in the series which is evident in the fact that despite working with the largest book in the series so far, he managed to turn in the shortest film. He also shows a nice command for directors actors because the performances all around are stellar, aside from the scenery-chomping, overacting Helena Bonham Carter. Imelda Staunton is a really nice addition to the cast of British legends and delivers a delightfully creepy performance in the central role of Dolores Umbridge, while Potter veterans like Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson and Maggie Smith are relegated to glorified cameos. That’s fine though, because they play their small parts to perfection and prove that much can be done with a little. More importantly, the kids have all grown as actors since the last film and it’s a good thing because this film is placed more on the shoulders of young Daniel Radcliffe than any other so far. His angst and torment is getting out of control and a good deal of the final battle takes place inside his mind, which is never an easy thing to perform or to film. He rises to the occasion and shows that while he still isn’t a great actor, he’s greatly improved and by the time the series ends in three years, he could be on his way to a fruitful career. Emma Watson is kind of a non-factor and the weakest of the three central student characters, which is a surprise switch because usually Rupert Grint wins that title hands down. He has been pretty much straight awful in the first four films, constantly mugging his face into an overexaggerated frown as a reaction to anything and everything, but in Order of the Phoenix he seems to have controlled that tic and put in a surprisingly subtle performance. I actually wished there was more Ron to capitalize on his good work. Katie Leung was okay as Cho Chang but she’s hardly in it and I have to think that the book goes into better detail about her relationship with Harry.
Their romance is merely one of the casualties of Yates’s disciplined runtime and as a viewer who hasn’t read the books, I found myself struggling to fill in some of the blanks in the script. Why was there all the stuff about Harry being expelled and sent to trial? It was quickly forgotten five minutes after it happened. Since when does everybody he know and love live in a secret building in London? What exactly was going on during that battle in the Ministry of Magic? Why did Voldemort show up for a minute and then disappear again? While the film really had me going for the three-quarters of the runtime, it lost me at the climax and reverted to the bad habit of the first two films in not being able to come to a satisfying conclusion. It seemed to end like an episode of Scooby Doo for no other reason than to have Voldemort mutter something like “I’ll get you next time Potter!” and justify the existence of a sixth book.
The visual effects are nowhere near the same league as Transformers and the CGI-work on Grawp is particularly offensive. It looks like Shrek shows up to do a cameo and all of a sudden we’re watching a cartoon mixed with live-action. There are some practical effects that seamlessly blend in but the green screen flying and computer characters still leave much to be desired. Overall the film is a flawed, but enjoyable piece of entertainment. Sometimes Rowling presents us some new magic “thing” that conveniently solves everyone’s problems at the right time and that never ceases to annoy me, but the films are undeniably moving forward and the memory of the ghastly first two are fading fast. Gone are the pointless Quidditch matches and the unredeemable and awful character of Draco Malfoy (almost) and instead we have some real character development and human interest. I’m still not a fan of these movies but I think I will keep turning up and seeing how it all plays out.