Whether viewers have read the book or not, they’ll find no real surprises in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Director David Yates makes this one of the darker episodes in the series, literally: there are few glimpses of daylight. That serves to accentuate that our rather self-absorbed, disobedient hero, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), is starting to discover his dark side, like Peter Parker in Spider-Man 3. It also serves to accentuate the lack of humor and whimsy in this installment.

To be fair, the wizardly instructors and their disobedient students are in dire straits this time around, so it makes some sense that this movie would lack some of the juvenile playfulness of the series’ early episodes.

Alas, the story just feels too familiar.

Harry’s struggle is all too similar to the challenges he’s faced before. Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) wants to do him wrong, and this time he’s striking right at Harry’s mind. We learn there is a “connection” between the boy and the bad guy, just as Darth Vader could speak directly into Luke Skywalker’s thoughts during The Empire Strikes Back. And if Harry allows Voldemort to read and control his mind, all is lost. He’ll fall victim to the Dark Side of the Force.

Meanwhile, the grownups are divided. The foolish and gullible leaders of the Ministry of Magic deny that Voldemort has come back, despite the evidence. So they’ve appointed an enforcer, the prim and proper Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), to move in and stifle the troubling rumors.

Those adults who are usually trustworthy — Dumbldore (Gambon) and the Hogwarts instructors — are behaving suspiciously (as usual). Kids spy on secret meetings (as usual), decide that they can’t leave things to the experts (as usual), and break the rules for the greater good (as usual). Meanwhile, Harry is having horrible nightmares, visions, and flashbacks (as usual). The love triangle of Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) , and Hermione (Emma Watson) is — gasp — troubled yet again. (When are these three going go start trusting each other? Oh, yes… maybe when they quit breaking rules and become trustworthy.) And it all leads to a wizard showdown (as usual).

It’s amazing that, with so much talent and such a colorful story, the film is so lacking in significant developments. It’s up to the cast to make this episode feel distinct. Are they up to the task? Well, they do what they can, but we’re left watching the young actors do what they usually do, while a cast of great veterans turn in what amount to cameo appearances. This leaves us longing for a movie that would give at least one of them a chance to really shine.

There are only two particularly interesting additions to the cast of characters this time around. We’re introduced to the deliciously spooky young woman named Luna Lovelace (Evanna Lynch), whose main accomplishment is to accentuate how bland and uninteresting Harry, Hermione, and Ron have become. And Staunton, as the infuriatingly manipulative Umbridge, is a joy to watch. She’ll remind viewers of their least favorite teachers, bosses, Pharisees, and politicians.

It’s great to see Gary Oldman getting some screen time, but he’s just another character whose whole life seems consumed with what to tell Harry, what not to tell Harry, when to show up and defend Harry, and when to mysteriously disappear.

Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) is his usual morbid self, but he’s becoming less and less interesting because everything around him is being sucked into his goth complex, getting darker all the time. (Snape gets one revealing flashback to his youth, but Pixar did this oh so much better with Anton Ego in Ratatouille last month.)

And David Thewlis, who was such a bright spot in The Prisoner of Azkaban, is completely wasted here, sulking as if he’s fully aware of this insult to his formidable talents.

Poor Brendan Gleeson is basically reduced to walking around and scowling. Newcomer Helena Bonham Carter certainly looks like she’s having fun as a psychotic escapee from prison, but I had to wonder: Is that a costume, or just the kind of thing she’s used to wearing in her relationship with Tim Burton?

Maggie Smith does nothing but look distraught.

Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, once the distinguished Gandalf of the series, is left to sneak around in his various bathrobes, until he stops and apologizes for everything (but not the movie) at the end.

For every interesting character, there are several that merely waste our time. The most pointless of all is a big CGI giant who is neither convincing nor amusing nor endearing (and he’s meant to be all three).

Young Cho serves no purpose other than to give Harry an excuse for a first kiss; it’s quite obvious that this love story isn’t going anywhere, because once that’s done he dashes off to take care of business and the story leaves her behind.

Voldemort’s kept a low profile through the whole series. His dazzling arrival at the end of the last installment was almost a relief. And so, what does he do now that he’s loose? Well… he keeps a low profile.

And when the heroes are put on trial for claiming that Voldemort did return, we share their exasperation, because it feels like the jury, the government, and the news media are simply holding up the storytelling by feigning ignorance.

To make matters worse, the film has been so heavily edited that a lot of things don’t make sense. Phoenix is the longest book in the series so far, and this is the shortest film. Not a good thing.

Forgettable, poorly explained episodes abound:

  • What’s the point of the chapter with Hagrid and the Annoying CGI Giant? Later, the giant has disappeared, and we’re not given sufficient information about why.
  • One character gets captured by sinister centaurs, and then show up later back at Hogwarts with hardly a scratch and no tales to tell.
  • A good deal of energy is spent worrying us about whether or not Emma Thompson’s Professor McGonnagle will be exiled from Hogwarts, and the whole matter is resolved by one character showing up and saying, “No, she stays.” Wow.
  • And what the heck is that mysterious arch that swallows up one of the film’s main characters? The scene borrows heavily from the loss of Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring, but we can’t even tell if what we’re watching is a death or a disappearance. We don’t know where we are, what’s happening, or why. Those are rather crucial elements in storytelling.

And it’s becoming rather annoying to consider how spells they’ve used in previous situations are conveniently forgotten when they might come in handy and actually solve a problem or two. (Weren’t they able to time-travel a couple of episodes ago? Wouldn’t one good time-travel flourish help them undo mistakes made here?

The film’s implications perpetuate the series’ worst habits.

For once it might be good if the heroes actually got punished, instead of rewarded, for behaving as if all rules were made to be broken. How many parents spend their time trying to instill some decent guidelines in their children? How can they compete with a series that relentlessly portrays impetuous youth as the truly wise while the loving caring grownups just don’t get it and end up apologizing at the end?

The longer the series goes, the more I wish the other characters would develop lives of their own. So many of them are so much more interesting than Harry. I wonder what kind of effect the Potter franchise has on young imaginations which tend to be self-centered anyway. Are the stories reinforcing the idea that we’re here on earth to defy the rules until we get our own personal curiosities answered? Are they giving readers, who will naturally associate themselves with the hero, the sense that the world revolves around them?

I think the healthiest thing for Harry right about now, and for the series as a whole, would be to discover a story that shows there’s more to life than Harry’s own family crisis.