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Phoenix Rises 

Pardon my Muggle thoughts, but with the release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire a year and a half ago, the film series was starting to gasp under its own weight. That film, in particular, had problems with pacing, and seemed to pause once in a while just so the special effects folks could show off their newest toys.

Of course, the trick with any film -- never mind one that must please devoted fans, newcomers, youngsters, oldsters and everyone in between -- is to tell a good story. The best news about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth film made from J.K. Rowling's wildly successful books, is that the practically unwieldy source material -- clocking in at just under 900 pages -- has been turned into a terrific movie adaptation of what was already a good story.

Oh, the pesky Potter purists aren't going to be happy that so many details have been left out, that some of this character and some of another now morphs into a new one. But the same people will be the first to realize that scriptwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan, Contact) has kept the flavor, the feeling, and the gist of the story intact. They'll also eventually admit that British TV director David Yates (who's already been signed to direct Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), has done a masterful job of making the film zip by in just over two hours, all the while keeping viewers mesmerized.

A brief warning: This one starts, in terrifying manner, on a hot summer day in London, with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and the loathsome Dudley Dursley (Harry Melling) being attacked by flying shrouded Dementors, who are bent on sucking the life force out of them. Harry may save the day, but his actions lead to a hearing at the Ministry of Magic, at which there will be a decision about his possible expulsion from Hogwarts.

It's at this point that the film, while staying firmly within fantasy territory, takes a couple of side turns into horror (involving Lord Voldemort and a handful of other creatures) and politics (involving a fight for control between Michael Gambon's now-secretive Prof. Dumbledore and the arrogant, foolish, Dick Cheney-like Minister Fudge, played by Robert Hardy).

The usual gang of characters remains in place, with Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and the ever-more-fetching Hermione (Emma Watson) at its center, though the sprawling story deals less with the triad's friendship than it has in previous installments. But many of the other main characters, especially Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Prof. McGonagall (Maggie Smith), and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), are given a bit of short shrift in order to make room for some new folks, most notably the bright, peppy, smiling, and vile Dolores Umbridge (scene-stealing Imelda Staunton), the newest teacher at Hogwarts. She's as much as an adversary for Harry as is Voldemort.

In a film filled with wondrous and, as has come to be expected, charmingly old-fashioned, visuals -- funny little creatures, words on newspapers moving around -- one of the most unnerving moments is the brief sight of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) in a suit and tie. The script first asks us if that startling image is just something that's in Harry's addled head, then bases much of the plot on what else is in there, why Harry's so confused, and what it all has to do with Voldemort.

Though Radcliffe has lost the look of innocence that made his character so effective in the early films, he still manages to put on a convincing look of wonder when Harry happens upon a new piece of magic. This is by far Radcliffe's strongest and most emotional performance -- he even keeps up with the velvet-throated and always amazing Rickman in an intense, wildly cinematic scene in which pieces of each character's past are revealed.

Yes, a new side of Hermione is shown; yes, there is a first kiss for Harry; yes, a major player is killed off; and yes, Harry's desperate question -- "What's happening to me?" -- is answered, though it's an answer he really doesn't want to hear.

The only real problem most people are going to have with the film is that it's so good, they'll wish it could have been a little longer.

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