J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the longest book in the series (a word count of 255,000) and its film adaptation is the shortest (138 minutes). For the first time, a new writer has been called in, Michael Goldenberg, replacing Steve Kloves (who will be coming back for the next installment).
It's hard to credit someone in the Harry Potter series, since there have been four directors, two screenwriters, and one fairly inconsistent novelist, but one can notice that Order of the Phoenix departs in very serious ways from its predecessors. Now that we have Goldenberg as a point of comparison, it becomes clear that Kloves' scripts were very faithful to the original novels, and in the case of Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire, solid, nuanced, and with the right amount of characterization and excellent pacing. None of these qualities are in this film.
It's painfully noticeable that new director David Yates doesn't have much of an idea of what to do with Harry Potter. Whereas Alfonso Cuarón was carefully chosen as the director of Prisoner of Azkaban because of his A Little Princess, Yates had only a couple of political TV dramas to his name. Probably the producers felt that the political aspect of Order of the Phoenix required a more politically and socially oriented director. Actually, one would be hard-pressed to find a more unsuitable option. He does a passable job most of the time, because he takes his cues from Columbus and Newell, mostly, and in that way ends up making the same mistakes they did and some new ones. The film is at its weakest when the tone is dynamic: if a scene requires a change of tone, it's always clumsy. Order of the Phoenix being the darkest and most serious of the series so far, practically every attempt at humor falls short.
A couple of early scenes illustrate this well. Harry goes to Grimmauld Place to find his friends and is nervous with Ron and Hermione because, as always, he's the last to know bad things are happening. The tension here is lukewarm and the actors are stiff — to make matters worse, within a second, the Weasley twins magically appear and the tone changes awkwardly from anxious to comic. Cut to a lighthearted little sequence in which they try to eavesdrop (literally) on the Order's meeting, and right after, one that begins with Nymphadora Tonks (what a name!) shaping part of her face to resemble a pig and a duck, desperate for attention. Two seconds later the tone changes again to one of uneasiness: it's much too quick and unsubtle, and therefore neither tone succeeds.
These little vignettes are typical of the two first films, where the humor was childish and quirky, and they don't fit at all with the somber thematics of the film, much less when they're in the same scene. There is next to no humor in this Harry Potter, because Yates is unable to balance the tones appropriately. A climactic scene involving a character's death is almost ruined because of that: it looks as if put together at the last minute, the director unsure of what it should look or feel like. The whole movie at that point depends on adroit tonal changes, but he just can't handle it (Harry's chasing of Bellatrix and giving over to hate) and much of the emotional range of the ensuing duel with Voldemort is thwarted.
Yates works well with the adult actors, and the early scenes in the Ministry of Magic with Harry's trial are strong, and watching Michael Gambon and Gary Oldman in their roles is just delightful. Gambon is always a joy to watch, and his Dumbledore really comes to life as a major character — something that's difficult to imagine with Richard Harris. And just watch Oldman as he fights the Death-Eaters with a truly graceful poise. This scene is definitely the high point of the entire film, if only on a purely visual level. It's like watching the Jedi duels in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace for the first time — I know the film is horrible, but for the first time the Jedis were moving with impressive elegance and agility, and to finally watch fully accomplished wizards (not old men or apprentices) at the height of their powers is just as wonderful. Harry's "occlumency" lessons with Snape (Alan Rickman) are also a high point, although much too short. Helena Bonham Carter appears briefly as villain Bellatrix Lestrange, but so briefly it's more a cameo than a role, and I hope there's more of her in subsequent movies.
Another particularly strong moment is the montage halfway into the film that shows Dolores Umbridge's (Imelda Staunton) devious and slow overtaking of Hogwarts interspersed with Harry's lessons to the other kids of more advanced spells in order to constitute an army to fight Voldemort. This is a major stylistic and structural departure from the previous films, as Steve Kloves had never employed such a technique. It's ironic that it works well and is able to sustain some humor, but one gets the feeling that such montages, much like the overused newspaper headings that show up every so often, are facile summarizers and leave out much needed plot and character development.
In Order of the Phoenix Harry feels troubled and isolated from his friends (something to do with Voldermort) and we see Ron and Hermione feebly trying to help him, but the dialogue and acting are substandard. Harry's going through a rough patch and we only know that because he has nightmares and whines frequently. There's really not enough room for them or any subtleties of character in this episode (poor Ron is almost invisible for much of the time). And in a way, this approach betrays the story's underlying theme; the final line of the film is that they will eventually win in the end against Voldemort, because they have what's really important — friendship and love. Okay. Better put that into practice again!
Another annoying Columbus influence, in addition to the flat characters and the childish humor, is an over-reliance on the magical elements (at which Harry continues to be innocently amazed despite him having tons of things to worry about). That was okay for the first two films where everything was new and we didn't know about owl mail or fireplace transporters. There's a big difference in showing this stuff when the time is proper and the tone is right. In Prisoner of Azkaban, little things like Harry's monster book fitted well, but it seems totally out of place in Order of the Phoenix, with its insistence on politics. Here, we have a repetitious night incursion into the forest with Hagrid (reprising for the third or fourth time in the series!) to find a giant that will help our heroes later on. His help, however, turns out to be pointless and a lazy solution that could be better handled. Goldenberg at least had the decency of omitting Quidditch altogether. Yay. Oh, and as a first, we have lame one-liners in Harry Potter, a much misguided attempt at humor: "You may not like him, Minister, but you gotta admit… Dumbledore's got STYLE!" and "Take your hands off my godson!"
It's really unfortunate that Yates has already signed up as the director of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the next one in the series. On the other hand, Steve Kloves will be handling script duties again, so that is a big plus. Hopefully Cuarón, who has expressed his will to come back to Harry Potter, can be in charge of the last episode.