The carefree days of playing Quidditch and munching on chocolate frogs are a memory. Following the death of classmate Cedric Diggory in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) have lost the joie de vivre that once fueled their lives at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
And the resurgence of the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has the rest of the wizarding world in an uproar. The Order of the Phoenix - a powerful group of conjurers committed to vanquishing Voldemort - holds clandestine meetings to prepare for war. The Order includes several former Hogwarts professors, such as "Mad-Eye" Moody (Brendan Gleeson) and Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), and Harry's godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman).
But the Ministry of Magic - essentially the governing body of the wizarding world - refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned, instead labeling Harry a liar and Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) a conspirator against the Ministry. To squelch any possible uprising, Ministry mainstay Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) takes over Hogwarts' Defense Against the Dark Arts class. But Umbridge's presence at Hogwarts proves stifling, and soon Harry and others are meeting secretly to study practical defense spells in preparation for a major conflict with Voldemort and his loyal Death Eaters.
The masterminds behind the Potter film franchise have assembled a cast that includes some of the very best British actors alive: Oldman, Fiennes, Dame Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman, to name a few. The latest addition is Oscar nominee Staunton, who immerses herself in the role of Umbridge and nearly steals the movie: Think Mary Poppins meets the Wicked Witch of the West, with a bubbly and saccharine exterior masking sinister motives. Another excellent new casting choice is Helena Bonham Carter ("Fight Club") as cackling Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange.
The visual effects are stunning, especially the climactic battle between Dumbledore and Voldemort. The lessons reflected in "Order" mirror those of real life - at some point children become young adults and must understand what it is to take care of themselves. This is the time for Harry, Hermione and Ron to shed the oversight of parents and teachers and assume responsibility for their own lives. And the Ministry's "executive privilege" decisions reflect today's political climate.
The darker undertones of "Order" (including the death of another likable character) may prove overwhelming for younger viewers; hence the PG-13 rating. But fans of the novel will be thoroughly satisfied (characters such as Luna Lovegood and Nymphadora Tonks are translated perfectly), as will fantasy fans in general.
Harry's cinematic leap to manhood is not unlike the wizard himself - spellbinding. --Tyler Hanley