Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the first film in its series to surpass the book upon which it is based (Prisoner of Azkaban is the best movie so far, but the book's pretty perfect too). Like Cuaron's film, this newest entry is a real adaptation, made with a unique approach to the material, rather than a slavish recreation of the source material designed to appase hardcore Potterphiles (so often the worst judges of what makes a good movie). Relative newcomer David Yates never folds under what must be the enormous pressure of delivering a film that is also practically a self-contained corporation; Potter 5 is a dark, thematically rich entry in the recently concluded saga of everyone's favorite Limey occultist.
The Harry Potter books have always had meandering plots - this is part of their charm. But with Order of the Phoenix, the narrative asides and protracted internal monologues are repetitive and often maddening (that said, it's my favorite of the books after Azkaban). I feared that Yates and screenwrite Michael Goldenberg would commit the series' all-too-common error of treating film like literature. Thankfully, Order of the Phoenix is surprisingly kinetic; in translating this chapter of Harry's story, which finds the boy wizard assembling an army of his peers to battle Voldemort and clashing with officious, kitten-loving monster Dolores Umbridge, Yates and Goldenberg make very shrewd choices about what to keep and what to cut from the book (the result is occasionally choppy, but only in retrospect). More importantly, Order of the Phoenix demonstrates an innate understanding of how, just as a book can find a thousand words in a single moment, a film can condense a thousand words into a single image. Order of the Phoenix is filled with indelible images, like a character's sudden, surprised disappearance into the abyss, that honor the shivery undertow that will seemingly draw Harry and his friends to an ending that, if happy, won't be easily earned (I'm halfway through Deathly Hallows, so my apologies if everything ends with an ice cream social).
While the climactic battle with Voldemort and his cohorts is splendidly creepy, the most engaging conflict in the film is between Harry and Umbridge. Imelda Staunton is perfect in the role, an insipid, smirking bureaucrat who equates inquiry with insubordination; rarely have I so intensely wanted to kick a fictional character in the teeth. Staunton clearly relishes in her character's hatefulness, and she elevates the rest of the cast - the kids do their best work thus far (I didn't even mind Emma Watson this time around), and it's a delight to watch the always-growing roster of great British thespians play off each other. I remain Michael Gambon's biggest fan, and Gary Oldman reminds even in a brief role why he's one of the greatest actors around. After the generic, smutty CGI-riddled mess that was Goblet of Fire, it's a welcome relief to see a film driven by the characters we've come to know and love.
The most exciting aspect of Order of the Phoenix is the breathtaking production design. Yates and DP Slawomir Idziak demonstrate a remarkable understanding of composition that give locations like the Ministry of Magic, with its seemingly endless tiled corridors, a sense of scale that makes the fantastic completely believable. And the details, like the endless purring in Umbridge's office, have an absurdist quality worthy of Gilliam at his best. Hogwarts once again feels like a real, lived-in place, and the entirety of the film is a treat for the imagination. And hough Order of the Phoenix ends with intimations of darkness, it also winds up on a note that honors its youngest, most faithful audience members for the persistence of their dreams.