It seems only fair to give a little background on my opinions about the Harry Potter series, books and movies, so you'll know where I'm coming from when I tell you why I liked the fifth movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I've read all the books by J.K. Rowling (except the seventh, of course, due later this month) and have enjoyed them overall -- but my least favorite was the fifth book, the one on which this movie is based. I thought it was at least 100 pages longer than it needed to be, and I grew irritated with the overload of Sullen Teen Syndrome from Harry. You have no idea how relieved I am that the movie successfully eliminated many of these difficulties, to the point where I found it an improvement on the book.

I've also seen all the movies, most of which I liked well enough but found unmemorable, with the exception of the third movie (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), which had better character development. Yes, I am firmly in the "Alfonso Cuaron rocks" camp, as opposed to the "Chris Columbus needs to return" camp. The previous movie, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, seemed so rushed and crammed in an effort to condense a thick book into a single movie that I didn't have high hopes for this film. Fortunately, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was able to pare down the storyline to its essentials without making me feel like we were missing anything critical.
For those of you who haven't read the fifth book (and I promise to be very careful about spoilers), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is about Harry's return to Hogwarts after his encounter with Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the chief evildoer of the series. The Ministry of Magic refuses to believe Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) or the headmaster, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), about Voldemort's return -- they are too fearful of the implications. So the Ministry sends the school a new teacher, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), who despite her pink outfits and fussy demeanor, has some nasty tricks in store for students and teachers who cross her. Harry also must deal with recurring nightmares involving Voldemort, who apparently is after some new weapon or power. Finally, Harry's continually frustrated because the adults won't tell him what's going on, and most students seem to believe the Ministry propaganda that he's crazy or lying.

The focus in this movie is on Harry, as it should be, but fans of the book will be a little sorry not to see more of their favorite characters. Ron and Hermione get more screen time than in the last film, but that's not saying much. We barely see Draco, which will disappoint many a teen girl with a Tom Felton crush. Many subplots from the book are missing in the interest of time and focus, which is not always a bad thing. I'm happy that Hermione's efforts to liberate house-elves went by the wayside, for example, but I missed the Christmastime hospital scene. The Quidditch subplot was my favorite part of the book, as it gave all the Weasley kids a chance to really shine, and I'm sorry we don't see more of Ron and Ginny in this film. However, the Weasley twins, Fred and George, still get some of the best moments here, as with the book. The fifth movie is darker than the previous ones, and the twins provide some much-needed comic relief.

As much as I have loved Michael Gambon's performances in other films, I feel he is miscast as Dumbledore. Dumbledore has a charming, even humorous side -- he practically twinkles at times in the book -- that we have not seen since Gambon took over the role. He often sounds impatient and angry, although he's also able to convey gentleness and affection when it's called for. Again, it's a little frustrating to see all of these wonderful British character actors in the film who don't get nearly enough to do: Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson -- and new for this film, Helena Bonham-Carter as the lunatically evil Bellatrix Lestrange, who has no more than a half-dozen lines. However, Staunton is perfect as Umbridge, and we do get a little extra time with Alan Rickman as Snape.

The CGI effects were often more of a drawback than an asset. The house-elf Kreacher has a few moments in this film, during which he is talking to himself in a way that reminds me uncomfortably of Gollum. Add the new Ringwraith-ish look for the Dementors and you start wondering exactly which fantasy franchise you're watching, anyway. The most obvious and least attractive use of CGI was with Grawp, later in the film (and if you don't know who/what that is, I won't spoil it) -- the look was a little too fake for me, and I wished the filmmakers had found a way to cut that from the film. (With the seventh book still unreleased, Harry Potter fans may be scrutinizing what is included and what is not, trying to determine what will be important in the final book.)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has more suspense than the other films in the series -- we're very much aware that Voldemort is out there hatching horrible plans for Harry and in fact the entire wizarding world, and that he could strike at any moment. We're fascinated by Umbridge's gradual increase in power and want to see what she'll come up with next. The movie has some scary moments: Small children may find the sight of Voldemort frightening, and there's some mild violence. David Yates has done an excellent job with his first Harry Potter directorial outing, assisted by a script by Michael Goldenberg, who seems to have picked just the right amount of storyline to keep in this movie. I am a little sorry that Goldenberg is not returning for the sixth film (Steve Kloves, who adapted the other films, will be returning), but look forward to seeing what Yates will do with the material. While the third movie is still my favorite in the series, this movie is right behind it.