Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is no stand-alone film, nor even a constantly reinvented franchise like the James Bond movies. It's a cog in a brisk, well-oiled machine, the fifth in a seven-film series, and it unfolds like a chapter in the world's longest-running serial.
Though director David Yates hasn't brought any overpowering directorial style to Phoenix, he does have some advantages. As the terrifying wizard Voldemort grows in power, Potter's world noticeably darkens and gets more involving.
"Fear makes people do terrible things, Harry," one character warns, recalling the havoc Voldemort caused when he last held sway. "Now he's returned, and I'm afraid the minister will do almost anything to avoid facing that terrifying truth."
Yates and his team handle the film's visuals well, including the impressive sets for the atrium of the Ministry of Magic and its endless Hall of Prophecy, as well as fine flying sequences involving equine creatures called "thestrals."
The director also works well with the film's juvenile leads, which is important, because these are the raging hormone years at the Hogwarts School. As played by Daniel Radcliffe, Harry comes off more as Grumpy Potter than as the bright light of the wizarding world. In fact, Harry looks so disgruntled in his grey hoodie, I was afraid he might start rapping.
There are reasons why Harry seems to be headed for his 19th nervous breakdown. His great protector, Dumbledore, won't give him the time of day; his romantic life is a shambles; and the anti-Voldemort fighters think he's too young to be a full-fledged warrior.
Even worse, the phlegmatic Ministry of Magic appoints the sinister Dolores Umbridge as Hogwarts' new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Impeccably played by Imelda Staunton (the star of Mike Leigh's very different Vera Drake), she's a pink-clad presence who comes off exactly like Miss Piggy's evil twin.
Phoenix may be thinned down from the series' longest book, but it can't shake an episodic feeling that makes it difficult to develop momentum. Though many of its elements are strong, it finally can't transcend being a way station in an epic journey — a journey whose cinematic conclusion is several years in the future.