‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’ Still Has the Best Battles of the Series
The fifth book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is so boring I literally forgot I’d read it. It was only recently as I’ve started to rewatch the Potter movies that I realized I had read The Order of the Phoenix, only I'd forgotten it in comparison to the much more memorable film adaptation. Who could forget Imelda Staunton’s scathing Dolores Umbridge, the introduction of Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) and the Thestrals, and the debut of Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange? The fifth film adaptation is one of the best movies of the franchise. It brought an incredibly dull book to life with some of the most stunning Harry Potter action sequences and an impressive balance of trauma and hope.
With the return of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and murder of Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattison) in The Goblet of Fire, the Potter franchise shifted in a much darker direction. Last week I called the fourth film the first mature movie in the series, and in The Order of the Phoenix director David Yates follows that up perfectly by charting the growth of the main characters as they get closer to adulthood. The fifth movie is a great bridge between the tragedy of Goblet and the calamitous events to come in the series, letting Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) begin to reckon with the fact that the wizarding world is now entering its darkest period in decades.
Harry, feeling the gravity of Voldemort’s return after processing the events of Goblet, asks Sirius (Gary Oldman) in this movie, “Is there really going to be a war?” Watching that scene again this week, I started to realize how much change takes place over the course of the eight movies. It was just a few weeks ago that I revisited Harry’s first trip to Hogwarts, a kid so full of eagerness and wonder, and now this week while watching The Order of the Phoenix again, Harry felt much like much more of an adult dealing with real issues. We watched him play a dangerous chess game and fight a giant snake – the things of fantasy – but here he becomes a relatable human being who’s dealing with grief and PTSD. It was easier not to notice that shift from the playfulness of the early movies into the heavier themes of the latter ones when watching these films over the course of 11 years, but as I’ve revisited them back-to-back, I found a new appreciation for how Goblet director Mike Newell and Yates crafted that transition.
If any movie does a fantastic job of capturing the weight of how horrifying the wizarding world has become, it was The Order of the Phoenix. While Newell extended the spectacular visual style Alfonso Cuaròn introduced in Azkaban, Yates brought a much needed crisp and neat minimalism to these movies. There’s no excessive or flashy techniques in Phoenix (unlike the frequent dutch angles of Chamber of Secrets) or visual effects that distract from the plot. Yates’ clean and unembellished aesthetic appropriately matches the increasing maturity and darkness of the novels, and it’s also why his movies are the best of the franchise. Films five through eight feel like well-made blockbusters instead of silly fantasy movies for kids.
The way Yates films Harry’s nightmares are some of the best examples of his approach. By revealing mere glimpses in a rapidly edited fashion, he evokes the agitation and claustrophobia of being trapped in the wormhole connection between Harry and Voldemort’s minds. His minimal approach is also in evidence in Sirius’ death scene, a murder that feels realistic and shocking.
It’s similar to the way Newell shot Cedric’s murder in Goblet, but Yates strips things down even further. In contrast to that Goblet scene, Sirius’ death arrives at the tail end of a climactic battle and happens with little dramatic effect – where Cedric’s body was thrown backwards as the score blasted loudly over the scene, Bellatrix’s Killing Curse is subtle with minimal CGI, and then the scene goes silent as Harry watches Sirius’ soul slowly drift from his body. It’s one of the most upsetting and memorable moments of the entire series, and Yates does a remarkable job at letting the emotional impact of the death speak for itself.
Yet as much as Order of the Phoenix paves the way towards an even darker finale, it still brings a warmth and sweetness to its story. Some of my favorite moments in the franchise are in this movie, and they’re all brief exchanges that may seem unremarkable at first glance, like when Sirius flashes a proud nod at Harry when he declares his allegiance to Dumbledore’s Army, or when Sirius grins at Harry on Christmas Day. Or when Ron, Harry, and Hermione are talking about Harry’s first kiss (also a scene shot without excess sentiment), and when Harry fights off Voldemort by thinking of his happiest memories of hugging, smiling, and laughing with friends. Those scenes could easily become maudlin (and that happens a bit in the later movies, especially with Harry and Ginny’s flirtation), but Yates sprinkles them in just sparingly enough to lift up the harsher themes of the movie.
The real gem of The Order of the Phoenix is the final three battle scenes. The fight against the Death Eaters is a beautifully photographed sequence that gives Ron, Hermione, Neville, and Luna a chance to show off their defensive skills. It's a great lead-in to the Department of Mysteries battle where the Order of the Phoenix arrive to take the reins from the kids. But it’s the final duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore that’s truly fantastic, and my vote for the best action sequence of the series. From snakes made of fire to shards of flying glass to Dumbledore’s roaring sphere of water, this scene is full of creative visuals. It's also much more thrilling to watch than the usual back-and-fourth of electric lights shooting out of wands. I also love this sequence’s sound design. There’s no score during their fight and hardly any dialogue; we only hear the crackling of colliding spells, the roar of the fiery serpent, the whistle and swish of Dumbledore’s wand, and the cascading of fountain water. Listen to this scene with your eyes closed, and you’ll see what I mean.
It says a lot about Yates as a director that he was able to turn one of the weakest books of Rowling’s series into one of the strongest movies (it also has me hopeful for his Fantastic Beasts). The Order of the Phoenix is my second favorite film (stay tuned in the weeks to come to find out my number one pick) and even nine years later, it holds up remarkably well.
- I can’t talk about Order of the Phoenix without mentioning Fred and George’s Skiving Snackbox or their awesome Lord of the Rings-like fireworks display. But even better than the fireworks is the look of pure horror on Umbridge’s face.
- I love that Neville finally gets his moment to shine in this movie.
- There is one bad part of this film I can never get past: Grawp. He’s so annoying and despite the expensive CGI in this movie, the giant still looks pretty silly.
- It always makes me a laugh that Dudley Dursley grew up to wear basketball jerseys and silver chain necklaces.