Help Wanded: Harry Potter assembles a new staff.
Help Wanded: Harry Potter assembles a new staff.

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The mop top is gone, the torso is muscular, and the attitude is pissy. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth cinematic installment in the gargantuan Harry Potter franchise, the Boy Who Lived is now more like the Boy Who Didn’t Ask to Be Born, and You’re Not My Real Dad, So Shut Up and Leave Me Alone! When we last saw Harry, he was finishing another year at Hogwarts, mourning the accidental death of a fellow student he was competing against in the grueling Triwizard Tournament, and freaking out over his unexpected battle with Voldemort, the all-powerful dark lord who murdered his parents but failed to take out the infant Harry. Voldemort has been in hiding since the beginning of the series, making his sudden appearance a very big deal.

Not many of these nor other particulars are recapped in Order of the Phoenix, so newcomers should be ready to enter the bewitched world so meticulously (and successfully) crafted by J.K. Rowling without their hands held. The story opens before the start of the new school year. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is miserable living with his obnoxious Muggle guardians, the Dursleys (Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw), and he’s forever fighting with their lunkheaded son, Dudley (Harry Melling). Worse, Harry’s hardly heard from his best friends, Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson). It’s not merely a lack of pen pals that bothers Harry—he’s waiting to hear news about Voldemort, specifically whether he’s turned up again and what Hogwarts, particularly headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), is going to do about it.

The 138-minute Order of the Phoenix, written and directed by Potter neophytes Michael Goldenberg and David Yates, respectively, has been culled from Rowling’s nearly 900-page book. Yet the movie is not about a whole lot in and of itself; it feels more like the mere chapter in an epic series that it is. Harry is 15 now, and in addition to worrying about Voldemort—whose presence Harry feels in his dreams—he’s got a pile of typical teenage concerns as well. He’s nearly expelled for performing underage magic, he’s dealing with his first crush, and he can’t stand the fact that Dumbledore is trying to protect him by withholding information about Voldemort while everyone else knows what’s going on. But no one really believes that the evil wizard is back, so Harry, once revered, has also become the laughingstock of the school. He’s soon questioning his own motivations: “I just feel so angry all the time,” he says.

Behind much of this is the slow takeover of Hogwarts by the frilly yet stern Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, always grinning and puffed with self-satisfaction). An employee of the Ministry of Magic—essentially the wizarding government—Umbridge begins teaching at the school, implementing a “Ministry-approved” curriculum and devising fresh, Patriot Actnlike policies faster than the students can figure out ways around the old ones. Her rules result in Harry teaching a defense class in secret to aid the kids who are now getting only theoretical lessons in the classroom.

The scenes of the students mastering new skills turn out to be the lightest and most enjoyable of this otherwise seriously minded sequel. Though Order of the Phoenix is continually absorbing and often exciting, much of the tiny magicians’ charm that dominated the start of the series has given way to workaday storytelling. (At least that’s true of the film. Rowling did stuff the book with her usual quaint, otherworldly details such as prickly house-elves or paintings whose subjects move and complain.) The new tone suits Radcliffe best, though: Now 18, he does troubled just fine, as he showed in his recent star turn in the London production of Equus. Ask him to act cheery or relieved, though, and you get the stiff expressions of an actor who might not have made it out of obscurity if it weren’t for his resemblance to a popular literary character.

The finer dramatic talents of Radcliffe and his co-stars, however, is nearly a nonissue—one of the joys of the Potter series is watching how they’ve grown since the first film in 2001, pretty much matching the development Rowling imagined for them. While each of them is capable, the star power comes from glimpses of the movies’ ace supporting actors such as Gambon, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, and now Staunton. All of them make their short screen times memorable, upholding the reputation that even though the Harry Potter stories are about kids, they aren’t exclusively for kids.