In this writer's opinion, Order of the Phoenix is by far the most stressful Harry Potter book so far: When Harry arrives at Hogwarts at the beginning of year five, it's to find that no one believes that Lord Voldemort has returned, Professor Dumbledore won't speak to him, the horrible Dolores Umbridge is the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and Harry himself has the biggest case of teen angst since Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume. Plus he's trying to get a piece of hottie Cho Chang.
With so much nail-biting going on, it seems unfair to fault the film adaptation for being darker and less fun than previous efforts. Sure, there are no extended Quidditch sequences here—that's because You-Know-Who is back, people!
In one of the most satisfying Harry Potter films so far, director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (both new to the franchise) do a fair job deflecting some of the anxiety inherent to the plot. The movie is surprisingly funny, and the special effects and magic tricks of the Potterverse are as impressive as ever—more importantly, the 870-page novel is pragmatically abridged, the pacing is quick, and all of the important plot points are touched upon. And while there's a heavy reliance on transitional shortcuts—dream sequences and swirling headline montages hasten the action from one scene to the next—this seems inevitable, considering the acreage of plot that must be covered.
The acting in Phoenix is a cut above past efforts: Daniel Radcliffe has really grown into his role as Harry, capturing the surly restlessness endemic to teenagers everywhere. (When he cries, "What's happening to me?" it's hard not to feel some pity for the kid: Puberty is bad enough without a Dark wizard taking over your brain.) The film wisely devotes much time to the secret Defense Against the Dark Arts classes that Harry teaches: Not only does this provide a showcase for some exhilarating effects, but in a film largely bereft of meaningful character development, it allows the minor characters some much-needed screen time, Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) and Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) most importantly.
Dolores Umbridge is handily one of the creepiest and most reprehensible characters in the Potterverse, and Imelda Staunton plays her with pure saccharine-coated evilness, while the ethereal little Evanna Lynch is an inspired bit of casting as loopy Hogwarts student Luna Lovegood.
As always, diehard fans of the book will find things to nitpick: The jealous tension between Harry and Ron is sidelined, leaving Ron (Rupert Grint) with little to do besides shoot concerned looks in Harry's direction. (Ron got HOT, by the way. As did—I feel weird saying this—the kid who plays Draco Malfoy.) Much of the backstory between Professor Snape and Harry's father is equally omitted. In general, though, Order of the Phoenix is an effective adaptation that conveys a huge amount of information with enough impressive fight scenes and magic tricks to keep things lively.