10 January 2011

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Well, I'm going to be straight with you here. This is hardly a flawless film, but this was the first Harry Potter film that elicited more enjoyment than disdain from me. It's got character development, a single crisis that (convoluted though it may be) ties all of the many threads of action together, and it's even got themes throughout.

In fact, we moved through the Goddamn Dursleys so quickly they didn't even really annoy me very much, and even though the evolution of the Dudley character (into "Big D") was a little embarrassing, they managed to work it into a scene with actual ramifications with the story -- and keep his parents to such a minimum that it felt like a bitter-but-swallowable pill. As to the ramifications, I actually enjoyed how insanely quickly things went from the face-off with Dementors in the tunnel into Brazil into Kafka's The Trial and for about twenty minutes or so I was kind of hoping the entire story would just continue spiraling downward into surreal bureaucratic madness. I didn't quite get my wish, but The Trial did give way to 1984 for a while there, as Umbridge eventually took over the school and began to scrub it clean in a very peculiar and pointed attack on the contemporary education system and its emphasis on impractical rote memorization versus practical applied knowledge or creative thought. And while the whole thing with the Minister's increasing paranoia while Umbridge guts the wizard-education program from the inside-out makes pretty much no sense when you look too closely, it's all in aid of something here -- in fact, it's in aid of both character conflict/obstacles and exploration of the roles and purpose of education and government in our lives -- and in the end, being true to the drama is much more satisfying than being true to logic. (Best to be both, no question, but I prefer to err on the side of emotional truth over logical fact.) And damned if this isn't the first time in about ten hours of story that I've been able to say that.

And although Voldemort plays a pretty crucial role here, obviously, this one works like Prisoner of Azkaban, in that we have concrete antagonists for our heroes as well as abstract ideologies they are pitted against; Voldy seems almost like an additional bonus round when all the rest is said and done. Order of the Phoenix also feels like the first time the storytellers have willingly turned their world on its head and challenged the basic tenets of their society: What is Hogwarts if we remove Dumbledore? What is Hogwarts if we remove magic? What do Harry and the Scooby Gang do if we take away their freedom to cast spells and so on? The answer here is extremely satisfying: they take matters into their own hands, they fight for their own forms of education and applied knowledge, and they form an underground -- a parallel to the Order of the Phoenix itself -- to stand in resistance to the forces of tyranny. All without betraying their characters and, much more excitingly, in ways which greatly develop them as people. Harry becomes a teacher. Hermione learns to paint outside the lines. Ron gains some self-confidence. Even lesser characters grow, as Longbottom learns some spells and Cho deals with the conflicted emotions of liking Harry and mourning Cedric (this last mostly through Hermione's exposition, and it remained unresolved, but it was gratifying to have them address the point, not breeze over it). Harry himself, especially, has clearly grown as a character in a number of ways from beginning to end of this one installment. In the past, most of his development would either come in a miraculous last-minute bout of bravery or off-camera, between years as it were, such that like Luke Skywalker in the original series, he'd simply show up in the next movie a better man. Here, we see Harry grow. I've got to admit, that's nice. Hell, we even get an unusual flashback that shows us how Snape got to be such a dickwad and sheds some less flattering, ambiguous light on the youthful hijinks of James Potter, knocking him down a notch toward mere humanity.

The story is far from without holes or confusing bits. The centaurs, the (ass-lousy CG) giant, Hagrid's role in general, the same stock scenes with Draco Malfoy for the fifth year in a row, and the oversimplistic motivation I touched on above for Minister Fudge and Miss Umbridge, among other things. I could probably go on about those things in as much detail here as I had in previous posts, but it was nice to switch it up, spend a little time talking about something I liked for a change. Lest everybody think my heart is made of coal.

One thing I meant to mention that came up while watching The Goblet of Fire and comes up again here is, all this talk about what kind of an education is needed by these proto-wizards really begs the question, what exactly is the end goal of teaching wizardry? We've seen what the academic life of an adult wizard is like, and some service industry jobs like shopkeeps and busdrivers of course, but this I think was our first actual hint at the world of wizards in a more metropolitan setting (albeit within the various Ministries of Magic). You get your first feel that their world may be just as insular and rat-racey as our own, and so it makes a little more sense -- all things being equal -- to question the nature and necessity of so much emphasis on the Defense Against The Dark Arts. Of course, we've got the return of The Dark Lord and all that, so, you know, all things are hardly equal. Still, all this attack- and defense-related magic... makes you wonder. (On that note: we got to see our first full-on magic combat in Order of the Phoenix, and while it was pretty chaotic and generic, it had the feel of using magic and using it so fast we didn't have time to question which spell was used how... it didn't blow me away but it didn't give me much specific to complain about, either. Nice work, guys.)

Yeah, so anyway, I'm pleased and a little surprised to report that here we have a Harry Potter movie that gives credit to its characters, explores and creatively undermines its world to good effect, and advances the overarching narrative without sacrificing the single story contained herein. Curious what the sixth installment holds for me, but it'll have to wait of course. I ought to get at least a little sleep.

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