The fifth release in J.K. Rowling's durable franchise -- "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (Warner Bros.) -- is scarcely less fresh than the very first, thanks to the ongoing quality of production, and the use of various directors.
At the start, teenage wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), who's on summer break from Hogwarts, is being cruelly taunted by his overbearing cousin, Dudley (Harry Melling). But when, moments later, two horrible Dementor creatures attack them, Harry uses magic to save Dudley and himself.
For thus using sorcery in the Muggle (i.e., real) world, Harry is to be expelled from Hogwarts School, though his allies in the Order of the Phoenix, a group dedicated to combating the malevolent Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), inform him there's to be a final hearing run by Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy).
Fudge discredits Harry's claims that the "Dark Lord" has truly returned (as transpired in the last film), and the "trial" seems fated to end with Harry's permanent expulsion. He's acquitted thanks to the last-minute intercession of headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). Once back at Hogwarts, however, Harry's treated like a pariah.
Only his chums Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) stick by him, but Harry is tortured by an intense feeling of loneliness, and further plagued by nightmares. It becomes clear that Voldemort is somehow infiltrating Harry's brain, and Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) works with Harry to evade Voldemort's mental intrusion.
To undercut both Dumbledore and Harry, Fudge installs the pink-bedecked Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts. But underneath her perpetual smile and cloying sweetness, she proves a steely lady indeed.
She forbids the actual practice of the magic that Harry and his colleagues know they will need to defend themselves against the evil forces. And at every turn, she brazenly undermines Professors McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Trelawney (Emma Thompson), and even Dumbledore himself.
With Hermione's prodding, Harry forms a secret splinter group of students that calls itself Dumbledore's Army to master the techniques that its members can use to vanquish Voldemort when he returns.
Besides Umbridge -- and Staunton is a real bright spot with her funny/scary portrayal -- there's also a new Harry ally in the person of the unflappable Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), and Hagrid's half-brother giant, Grawp (Tony Maudsley). Harry gets his first screen kiss from classmate Cho Chang (Katie Leung).
With director David Yates confidently at the helm, this installment is arguably the best yet. Performances by the blue-chip British cast are excellent, and the maturing Radcliffe and his young friends exhibit greater depth. Other pluses are more wondrous effects, a coherent narrative and sensible balance between action and human drama, and a meaningful subtext about the power of love and personal choice in doing good. As Harry's godfather, Sirius (Gary Oldman), explains, "We all have light and dark inside. What matters is what we choose to act on."
The film contains some scenes of peril, moderate fantasy violence and scary imagery, which may preclude very young viewers. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
These movies have been evaluated for artistic merit and moral suitability by the media reviewing division of Catholic News Service. The reviews include the CNS rating, the Motion Picture Association of America rating, and a brief synopsis of the movie.
The classifications are as follows:
A-I -- general patronage;
A-II -- adults and adolescents;
A-III -- adults;
L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. L replaces the previous classification, A-IV.
O -- morally offensive.
Note: Some movies previously were designated A-IV. Older films with this classification should be regarded as classified L.