Better by the book

Latest flick shows Potter's more appealing to read than to watch

Posted: July 10, 2007

THE OFFICIAL name of fifth Harry Potter movie is "The Order of the Phoenix," but fans will know it as "Harry Gets a Haircut."

It's one thing to imagine a shorn Harry, but seeing Daniel Radcliffe with a borderline buzz is another thing: Little Harry is all grown up.

Sort of.

Hermione (Emma Watson) is sprouting like a weed, and Ron (Rupert Grint) is clearly getting more than his share of chow. This has an unintended visual consequence - they tend to dwarf our designated hero when the whole gang occupies the same frame.

Maybe this is why Harry treats them so shabbily in "Phoenix," and maybe it's why he seems to be in such a foul mood.

Of course, there is also the matter of his near-death experience. Dementors attack him at his Muggle address, forcing Harry to fight back with an unauthorized use of magic that has him on trial and in danger of expulsion as the movie opens.

An overbearing minister of magic has Hogwarts under tight supervision and wants Harry judged by the letter of the law rather than by its intent.

Harry is saved by a clever lawyer (Dumbledore to the rescue), but the trial is a sign of things to come.

The minister sends in a new teacher - the very pink, very officious Mrs. Umbridge (played beautifully by Imelda Staunton) and gives her sweeping administrative powers.

Umbridge soon has the campus in a dictatorial lockdown. Student activities are curtailed, the use of real magic is forbidden, and favored teachers are targeted for dismissal.

"The Order of the Phoenix" is J.K. Rowlings' treatise on the dangers of state control. Through Umbridge, she shows how authoritarians can take hold in an atmosphere of gnawing fear, the kind that's consuming Hogwarts. Umbridge targets Harry because his claims regarding Voldemort threaten the status quo, but the anxious piling up of rules is really a tacit acknowledgment of what Harry has been trying to tell everyone - that Voldemort has returned.

To fans, this isn't exactly a news flash. We've been hip to the dark lord since this first book, and so there isn't a great deal of drama in official recognition of his presence.

What's more, the movie Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is no match for the Voldemort that readers' have created in their own minds. On screen, he's Uncle Fester with Michael Jackson's skin peeler and plastic surgeon. Going forward, the only thing that can happen is that he'll grow fully into Fiennes, noted ravager of flight attendants.

The psychological struggle between Harry and his nemesis - riveting on the page - is less so on screen. It's one guy shooting a magic beam at another guy, by now a pretty moldy effect in motion pictures.

All of this is further evidence that, in the end, the Potter franchise will be regarded as a literary one. The movies are mere supplements.

That feeling has never been more pronounced than in "Phoenix," likely to be watched by impatient Potter fans (the narrative essentially treads water) who are looking ahead to the soon-to-arrive final book, wherein all questions will be answered. *

Produced by David Heyman and David Barron, directed by David Yates, written by Michael Goldenberg (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling), music by Nicholas Hooper, distributed by Warner Bros.

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