Harry Potter is about to start his fifth year at Hogwarts School, but it's been nearly eight years since the original cast and crew started filming the first movie.
With age and experience, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" brings a more powerful and convincing set of characters than any of its predecessors.
I hadn't been sitting in my seat for two minutes before it appeared our older, taller and buffer hero, played by Daniel Radcliffe, was in a schoolyard scene that looked like a British version of the early '90s classic "The Sandlot."
Potter is being bullied by his cousin Dudley and his cohorts in a park in Little Whinging, and the bullying continues as Potter struggles to convince his friends and colleagues that the return of the evil Lord Voldemort, portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, is imminent.
Potter appears more high school outcast than hero-wizard, and the line between the real world and fantasy is blurred. Potter is not only trying to protect himself and his friends against Voldemort, he's also an everyday teenager dealing with some of the harsh realities of adolescence.
But not all the realities of youth are harsh. Potter finally receives his much-ballyhooed first kiss in this installment, from his longtime crush, Cho Chang, played by Katie Leung. The kiss was sweet, but on the wet side, and complete with a Hogwarts version of Christmas mistletoe.
Then the sunlight fades quickly and the sky turns to gloom and doom. I felt I was in for a horror movie rather than a trip down Hogwarts hall. I noticed a young boy sitting next to me with his dad. He had a gaping smile and he was fully dressed in "Potter"-gear with his wizard cape and "Potter" spectacles. I decided if he can do it, I can do it.
Potter's troubles begin when he's attacked by skeletonlike creatures, or Dementors, draped in midnight-gray cloaks. There were a few moments that made me jump, but the Dementors were no villains or spectors I hadn't seen before.
They reminded me of the Nazgul, or Ringwraiths, of "The Lord of the Rings." The scene ends when Potter fends them off with a charm. And not just any charm, but a Patronus Charm.
Like underage alcohol consumption in the United States, it is illegal for wizards to perform the Patronus Charm under age and in the presence of muggles or civilians. It is this illegal act that brings Potter back to his wizarding world, where he narrowly avoids expulsion, and tries to convince authorities and classmates that Voldemort is on the move and must be stopped.
There are a few new faces in this film, most notably Dolores Umbridge, brilliantly played by Imelda Staunton. Hers is a heavy name to a heavy title. She's the senior undersecretary to the minister and later becomes the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts.
Only don't expect any lessons like the ones Miyagi taught. Umbridge is more concerned about the art of un-defense, and discovering secret activities on campus; her hideous frumpy pink outfits add drama to her haunting proclamations. As a result, the students opt to make Potter their unofficial tutor.
I was excited when I read Helena Bonham Carter was joining the cast, but was disappointed by her under use. Though she played her part like a genius, the wide-eyed prison escapee, Bellatrix Lestrange, she is only in a couple of scenes.
Though not a new face, but another understated one, was the endearing Severus Snape, played by Alan Rickman. Rickman's ability to master the art of creepy and lovable puts him among the acting elite. His scenes packed enough punch that he became my immediate favorite.
A new face you won't see is the director's. David Yates, whose background is in British television, is directing his first "Potter" film. Yates is set to direct the next one as well. After you see "The Order of the Phoenix," you'll understand why. Yates and Chris Columbus are the only directors to helm more than one "Potter" film.
In one of the most beautiful scenes of the movie, Potter and the Order of the Phoenix soar on their souped-up brooms to Hogwarts over the River Thames. They fly at impressive speeds through London's city lights, over and under bridges, dodging tour boats and zipping past the illuminant British Parliament. Seeing the movie at an IMAX screening in New York didn't hurt.
Whether or not you're a Potterhead, this film is a homage to the wonders of childhood fantasy and imagination. In the first "Harry Potter," we are introduced to Hogwarts with its dining hall lit by floating candles and flying quidditch matches, but there are plenty of new wonders in the fifth: a lovable giant named Gawp, a super-sized fuzzy ear used as an eavesdropping device, a creature that's a cross between a horse and a raptor, but can only be seen by those who have seen death, and a wall filled with decorative plates of live meowing cats.
With scenes like this, it's no wonder Universal Studios has made plans for a Harry Potter amusement park to open in Orlando in 2009.
Voldemort was only in one scene in the movie, but I left worried I would have nightmares about him. Perhaps it was his absence that scared me more than his presence. Voldemort haunts the thoughts of Potter throughout the movie, and through a prophecy, we learn he will haunt his future.
The only problem with a mammoth series like "Potter" is that I left the theater feeling incomplete. Each film is a means to the end, a fraction of a whole. It lacks the feel of an entire experience because each film paves the way for the next.
Hermione said to Potter at one point during the film, "We're all in this together." Potter's story becomes more sinister and dark, and Radcliffe comes into his own as a troubled, imperfect and believable Harry Potter.
The bond between Potter and his friends grows stronger, and after "The Order of the Phoenix," I imagine the bond between Potter and his fans will be no different.