"HARRY Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is no stand-alone film or even part of a constantly reinvented franchise like James Bond. Rather it's a cog in a brisk, well-oiled machine, the fifth in what ultimately will be a series of seven films that function like chapters in the world's longest-running serial. If you've sampled the previous episodes, you'll likely see this one, no matter what its qualities, and if you haven't seen any of the others, there isn't much justification for jumping in at the middle.
The Potter films are especially unusual because they've used the same actors for the key roles, with the trio of juvenile leads (Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Emma Watson as Hermione and Rupert Grint as Ron) aging along with their characters. The screenwriter has also been the same, although Steve Kloves took a break here, capably replaced by Michael Goldenberg. It's only the directors who've changed with regularity, and their personas have, up to a point, imprinted themselves on their films.
In fact, the Harry Potter movies have been with us for so long (since 2001) that it's helpful to view them in stages similar to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' celebrated five stages of grief. But instead of denial, anger and depression, we get risk avoidance, artistic vision and consolidation of gains.
If director Chris Columbus represented risk aversion with the first two Potter films, Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell in the third and fourth stood up for artistry while British TV director David Yates seems intent in this fifth chapter on not jeopardizing what has been accomplished up to now.
Though Yates hasn't brought any overpowering directorial style to "Phoenix," he does have some advantages. As the terrifying wizard Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) grows in power, Potter's world noticeably darkens and gets more involving. Plus, having a cast that includes the cream of current British actors -- think Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Isaacs, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, and that's not the entire list -- certainly doesn't hurt.
Yates and his team handle the film's visuals well, including the impressive sets for the atrium of the Ministry of Magic and its Hall of Prophecy, as well as fine flying sequences involving either broomsticks or 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 Hogwarts School, and that is especially true where Harry is concerned. Looking so disgruntled in his gray hoodie that you fear he might start rapping, Harry comes off as more Grumpy Potter than the bright light of the wizarding world.
In truth, there are reasons why Harry seems to be headed for his 19th nervous breakdown. His great protector Dumbledore (Gambon) won't give him the time of day, his romantic life is a shambles and the anti-Voldemort fighters, spearheaded by his godfather, Sirius Black (Oldman), think he's too young to be a full-fledged warrior.
Even worse, the phlegmatic Ministry of Magic refuses to so much as acknowledge that Voldemort is back in the game. The unctuous Dolores Umbridge, the ministry's pick as Hogwarts' new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, declines point blank to impart anything beyond theoretical knowledge. Impeccably played by Imelda Staunton (the star of Mike Leigh's very different "Vera Drake"), this pink-clad presence comes off like Miss Piggy's noticeably evil twin.
Thinned down from the series' longest book, "Phoenix" can't shake an episodic feeling that makes it difficult to develop momentum. Though many of its elements are strong, including newcomer Evanna Lynch as the spacey Luna Lovegood, it finally can't transcend the limitations inherent in being no more than a way station in an epic journey, a journey whose cinematic conclusion is several years away.
"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes. In general release.