MOVIE REVIEW- Muggles beware: Has Harry's magic worn off?

Special to THE HOOK

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is for hardcore fans only. Not the ones who have blown up nude stills of Daniel Radcliffe in Equus to poster size– well, maybe them too– but those who have followed the series from the beginning, probably on page as well as screen.

With the septet well past the halfway mark, gone are the days when a casual moviegoer could go in cold and enjoy a Harry Potter film as a self-contained entity. There's too much backstory to recap– instead there are casual references to past characters and incidents to delight the cognoscenti– and the inconclusive ending is merely a stop sign on the way to the final destination.

With less time for fun, the shortest Potter movie so far gets down to business quickly with Harry defending himself and cousin Dudley Dursley (Harry Melling) against Dementors, leading to an order for his expulsion from Hogwarts for the use of "underage sorcery" outside of school.

The intercession of headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) keeps Harry in school for the fifth year, but something is definitely up. The Ministry of Magic is publicly refuting Harry's claim that Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is back and up to no good. To keep a lid on things, they install Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as the teacher of Defense against Dark Arts. In the pinkest wardrobe since Legally Blonde, she's the smiling face of malevolent bureaucracy, most frightening when she laughs, endangering her students by forbidding them to use magic in class.

It's established early on that there's a psychic link between Harry and Voldemort, and that in the end only one of them can survive. Unfortunately "the end" means the end of the series, so their battle at the end of this film is virtually meaningless, and means the sixth film (also to be directed by Phoenix director David Yates, heretofore known only for British television work) will be another extended trailer for the seventh, even though readers will know the outcome in a few days.

Harry rebels against Umbridge and forms "Dumbledore's Army," giving his fellow students the defense training their teacher, with Orwellian logic, denies them. (The army is significantly smaller when it comes time to fight than when they're training.) Meanwhile Umbridge's power at the school grows exponentially, until she replaces Dumbledore.

Compared to most of us, Harry has had a pass through adolescence, a kind of "Get Out of Puberty Free" card. The one thing computer-generated effects can't make believable is that a boy could age from 11 to 16 with more concern about saving the world than zits and a constant erection. ("Whip your wand out" could be a new catchphrase emerging from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.) Harry gets his first kiss, not from Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) but Cho Chang (Katie Leung), who is then taken out of the action before it can lead to anything.

For better (Staunton as Umbridge, Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood) or worse (Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, flamboyant cousin of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), Harry's godfather), new characters are thrown into the mix. A few have disappeared too, but most of the oldies are back– in flashbacks or dreams if they're not still alive– with few having time to make an impression. Emma Thompson, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Brendan Gleeson, Warwick Davis, David Thewlis and Julie Walters are among those with a scene or two each. Rupert Grint is around more as Ron Weasley but has little to do. 

There are new creatures too, including the lovely flying Thestrals and Hagrid's (Robbie Coltrane) gigantic half-brother, Grawp, who looks like Shrek only not as real.

There's no Quidditch match this time, but that's about the only thing they're willing to admit they've run into the ground. Potterheads will drool over every frame; but while my resistance may put me in the critical minority, I doubt I'll be the only one for whom the magic has worn off.