Director David Yates, who's never helmed a project this big, brings an energy and efficiency to Potter-land -- this is the series' fastest-moving (and, at a mere 139 minutes, shortest) installment.
Credit J. K. Rowling too: Order of the Phoenix gives us what may be the most compelling premise for a Potter picture yet, because it's the one least chained to an elaborate, mechanized plot. In narrative terms, not that much happens, but Harry's emotional journey is nearly epic. Still reeling from his standoff with the newly resurrected Lord Voldemort at the end of 2005's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and from the death of his classmate Cedric Diggory, the already melancholic Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is, at the start of the new film, downright disconsolate. Sweating out another long, hot summer in the company of his boorish aunt, uncle, and cousin, pining for the bygone days of Quidditch matches, and shooting the shit with Dobby the house elf, he's practically a poster child for teen Prozac. Just when it seems things couldn't get any worse, a couple of fearsome, faceless beasties called Dementors come along to shake Harry out of his malaise . . . by quite nearly turning him into dinner.
Old Voldy, it seems, is stirring again, though few outside the movie's titular cabal -- a secret society formed by Hogwarts' headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) with the express purpose of vanquishing Voldemort -- will acknowledge it. The officious Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, has even taken to planting anti-Potter screeds in the pages of the Ministry's house scandal sheet, The Daily Prophet, sure that the boy wizard is but a pawn in a Dumbledore-plotted coup d'état. He also installs his loyal emissary Dolores Umbridge (played as a sinister parody of schoolmarm authority by Vera Drake star Imelda Staunton) as a Hogwarts hatchet woman, charged with pruning the faculty of subversive elements and restricting the students' social freedoms. Of all the new creatures, human and otherwise, who are introduced in Order of the Phoenix, it's this smiling sadist in fuchsia couture who makes the most indelible impression.
Order of the Phoenix satisfies in all the conventional ways that fans of the books and the previous films have come to expect: There are appearances by all your favorite series regulars, including a welcome return by the Prisoner of Azkaban himself, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who was reduced to glorified cameo status in Goblet of Fire. There are CGI wonderments galore, from the skeletal, winged creatures called Threstrals (which can only be seen by those who have witnessed a death) to the majestic but menacing centaurs -- horsemen in the truest sense of the term -- of whom I wish we had seen more. The movie's most memorable encounters, however, take place not within Hogwarts' hallowed walls, but upon the more perilous terrain of Harry's consciousness. The boy's head was already a veritable minefield of fear, self-loathing, and pubescent confusion long before Voldemort (played once again by a bald, noseless, and eerily Michael Jackson-ish Ralph Fiennes) started trying to infiltrate it. Goblet of Fire -- the first PG-13 Potter pic -- tried for a similar feeling of teenage Sturm und Drang, but tended to overly literalize everything, from the goo-goo-eyed blushes of romance between Harry and the comely Cho Chang (Katie Leung) to the odd touches of homoeroticism between Harry and the jilted Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). A more affecting coming-of-age story, Order of the Phoenix sees adolescence as something altogether graver -- it's about the moment at which schoolboy frolic gives way to an understanding of the evil that men do in the world.
J.K. Rowling has said repeatedly that she will retire all things Potter following the publication of the seventh novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which is due out this month. It's a pity. By every indication, Harry is on track for a whopper of a midlife crisis.