Wednesday, July 11, 2007

In less than two weeks, Muggles the world over will get their mitts on the seventh, and final, “Harry Potter” novel. The latest film version of the boy, make that teen, wizard, will make the wait feel much longer.

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” marks the fifth and least engaging chapter in what had been a consistently winning franchise. The previous installments wisely introduced new characters while adding fresh dimensions to existing ones. “Phoenix” can’t be bothered with the latter.

Sure, we have a devious new instructor (Imelda Staunton, as game as possible given the shallowness of the role), but where is the tension and tenderness between Harry, Hermione and Ron? And if you’re going to squeeze in Harry’s first kiss, why make the romance behind the buss so quicksilver? Bashful teens will surely look away during the lip lock, which is a certifiable PG-13 smooch.

Harry’s already in a foul mood when “Phoenix” opens. A pair of evil Dementors attacks him and his Muggle of a cousin during summer break, forcing Harry to use magic to fend them off. The move nearly gets him thrown out of Hogwarts Academy. Students can’t wield their magic in front of Muggles.

The courtroom scene meant to reclaim his good name is stiff and a harbinger of what’s to come. We’re quickly reunited with Harry’s school pals, Hermione (Emma Watson, who consistently transcends her winnowed part) and Ron (Rupert Grint). The students learn about The Order of the Phoenix, a secret society dedicated to thwarting Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), Harry’s sworn enemy, who reappeared in the last “Potter” film.

The society’s mention early on establishes the title link but little else of any dramatic import. The frantic, disorienting early scenes set up the humdrum story. No one, inexplicably, believes Harry when he says Lord Voldemort already has returned, and the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Dolores Umbridge (Miss Staunton), leads the doubting brigade.

The pink-clad professor starts teaching theoretical spell casting, so sure is she that Voldemort’s threat is nonexistent. Older audiences could read a few things into this “head in the sand” subplot given our age of terror, but such interpretations are probably wasted on the superficial “Phoenix.”

Earlier “Potter” films balanced the wonder of witchcraft with a fine sense of humor. Here, a few random gags are tossed our way, but they feel as forced as Umbridge’s twitchy grin. Mr. Radcliffe doesn’t so much as smirk throughout “Phoenix,” and we know the feeling.

The list of fine actors either wasted (Emma Thompson) or given token appearances (David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Maggie Smith and Helena Bonham Carter, to name just a few) further hampers the fun. Only Gary Oldman registers as Harry’s devoted godparent.

Anyone unfamiliar with past Potter books will be lost without a compass. Even those who devoured the first four films, this critic included, will wonder what precisely is happening at regular intervals.

Perhaps reigning in an 870-page book was too much to ask from any director, let alone British TV veteran David Yates, who takes over the franchise here. He can’t summon the striking sequences which made past “Potters” so memorable, and he’s equally unsuccessful at drawing out Harry’s teenage angst. The poor wizard just seems cranky when he’s not being petulant.

Take away a dazzling battle royale and a few neat special effects, and you’ve got just another drab sequel, a fate the previous “Potter” films had deftly avoided.

(TWO STARS) TITLE: “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” RATING: PG-13 (Frightening imagery, adult themes and violence) CREDITS: Directed by David Yates. Screenplay by Michael Goldenberg based on the books by J.K. Rowling. RUNNING TIME: 138 minutes WEB SITE: MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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