Hollywood Product - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Puberty plus potions equals passion

Genre: You know, Harry Potter! Magic school!

The pitch: Harry Potter's (Daniel Radcliffe) attempts to defend against evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) are hindered when cruel but cutesy-voiced Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) seizes control of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Money Shots: A spooky early attack by ghostly Dementors sets the film's high stakes. Harry's hush-hush magic defense classes convey youthful unity, while the Weasley twins' (James and Oliver Phelps) spectacular, authority-defying disruption of exams expresses the exuberance of rebellion. The kids' final battle takes place in a cavernous storeroom filled with towering, tumbling shelves of crystal balls.

Best line: "Just because you're allowed to use magic now doesn't mean you're allowed to whip your wands out for everything!" Mrs. Weasley (Julia Walters) chides the twins, who provide the comic relief in the dark, tense tale.

Fashion Statements: Umbridge's fuzzy, pukey-pink outfits stand out compared with the black-clad Hogwarts' professors and symbolize her oppressive new order. Harry's bullying cousin Dudley (Harry Melling) wears bling and huge shorts, not unlike a young A.J. Soprano, and reminds us that the film takes place in the present day. But what's the deal with that rubber band around the beard of Dumbledore (Michael Gambon)?

Body count: One major casualty, as per J.K. Rowling's book. Gore is in short supply, but the film is PG-13 for a reason and too intense for little kids.

Cameos: Timothy Spall's ratty Peter Pettigrew is briefly visible in an old photo. The Order of the Phoenix features about a zillion supporting characters, most of whom have only a few lines. But director David Yates (who is also scheduled to helm next year's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) juggles them so deftly that we enjoy recognizing them, without being overwhelmed by their numbers.

Political subtext: Viewed as a post-9/11 metaphor, Phoenix can be read as both a conservative plea to take terrorist threats seriously and a liberal cautionary tale against totalitarian abuse of power.

Better Than the Previous Films? Yes. It's low on jokes and wonder, but presents the tightest, most thematically focused film in the franchise, which has previously struggled to keep pace with the books' busy plots.

How does it compare to the book? Fans will grumble at some of the excisions ("Quidditch" is never shown or even mentioned), but Yates finds superb visual expressions of the book's ideas and improves on the last chapters' action scenes. The Order of the Phoenix even finds room for inessential roles such as nasty elf Kreachur and hulking but kindly Grawp.

The bottom line: Unlike the light, Hardy-Boys-at-Hogwarts sleuthing of the early films, The Order of the Phoenix uses its supernatural setting for a taut, school-set thriller rich with political metaphors. It's like The Empire Strikes Back of the Harry Potter series, although if you haven't seen the last two movies, you'll feel in the dark without a magic wand. 4 stars