Their apple cheeks, their sparkling laughter, their boundless optimism. Kids are so cute.
Then they become teenagers.
A scene at the beginning of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" foreshadows the change that sets the movie's tone.
Children in a playground twirl around on a hand-pushed carousel, laughing. Their mother calls to them cheerfully. Harry Potter, played by boy-no-more Daniel Radcliffe, watches from his perch on a swing.
Then more teenagers show up, and cruelty ensues. The children's voices fade, and the sky blackens like a bruise.
Parents in the audience will be nodding through the first half of the movie, which illuminates a world driven by two great forces: sorcery and teen sullenness. Radcliffe's Potter snarls at friends at Hogwarts Academy who stick up for him, won't ask for help from people he trusts, and snaps at anyone with the nerve to say they understand. He enjoys his first kiss, only to end up feeling betrayed.
The journey through teenagerhood is trying enough under the best circumstances. Try it with an evil wizard's voice in your head.
Potter wakes up sweaty in his Hogwarts bed with Lord Voldemort's visions reeling through his brain. His waking world is no haven, either. His insistence that Voldemort has returned to potency, contradicting official Ministry of Magic doctrine, has resulted in a takeover of Hogwarts.
A ministry doyenne named Dolores Umbridge, played with gleeful sadism by Imelda Staunton, has pronounced herself appalled by the shambles that Headmaster Albus Dumbledore has made of the place. Clad in pink polyester skirt sets and a titanium hairdo, her cyanide-laced rictus of a smile evokes Kathleen Turner's cheery dismemberer in "Serial Mom."
She simply will not put up with any foolishness, especially teaching young sorcerers to defend themselves against magical attacks. Disobedient pupils must write out their penance with her favorite pen, which carves bloody furrows in their own flesh. Watching, her smile is never wider.
Only when the oppression peaks does Harry find the motivation to clamber out of his sauna of self-pity and notice his stalwart pals. Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) convince Harry to lead the resistance and teach volunteers military-grade magic.
Joining them are Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), a spooky wisp of a girl, Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), who has finally grown into his cheeks, and Cho Chang (Katie Leung), who will get to perform the role dreamt of by untold legions of female fans.
They call themselves Dumbledore's Army, sarcastically, but the joke is lost on Umbridge when her inquisition leads her and her Slytherin minions to her door.
Then it's off to the Ministry of Magic for the All-Wands No-Spells-Barred Cage Match between Dumbledore's Army and the Dark Lord's Death Eaters, complete with a tag-team handoff to the main event: Dumbledore vs. Voldemort.
They're supposedly fighting over some sort of prophecy, caught up in a light bulb stored with a bazillion other light bulbs in a ministry cellar. Why isn't clear, because when it's revealed at the end of the movie, the secret worth killing for is as shocking as sunrise.
It doesn't matter, because the magical MacGuffin is only in the film as an excuse for a staggeringly complex computer-animated maelstrom. Director David Yates couldn't cram 896 pages into his movie. But he should have spent a bit more time setting up what all the fuss was about, if only to have mercy on all the parents in the audience who haven't memorized the family tree of Sirius Black.
The story liposuction, taking calculated advantage of an audience that already knows what's going to happen, was without major incident. Purists will note that the film did transgress the book's story in several instances (none more shocking than the identity of the informant who betrays Dumbledore's Army to Umbridge).
Radcliffe has made strides as an actor, but in "Order of the Phoenix" humans are playing second fiddle to microprocessors throughout. An old gripe, and not one that will dissuade a single ticket-buyer, but it underscores a certain lack of humanity about the film.
We've come so far together, the readers and the actors who gave J.K. Rowling's characters flesh. When we see them onscreen anew, it's like meeting old friends, just as they always were, but older now. The cheer that went up when Neville was first sighted proved that.
What a pity that Yates didn't trim the swooping about and the lingering over particularly clever bits of computer graphics to let us spend a little more time with the faces we've grown to love.
Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), measuring out his words micron by micron with Arctic chill, was a refreshing but scarce tonic amid the noise. Poor Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the tattooed biker wizard in the family, gets mere seconds to re-bond with Harry before getting zapped by his cousin Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), a mascara-smeared dingbat.
The fabulous graphics are a feast for the eyes, and if you're looking forward to good battling evil, wands a-blazing, you'll get a belly full. If only the aim was a few inches higher -- at the heart.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Review: Three stars (out of four)
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Imelda Staunton. Teen wizard leads fellow students against unseen arch-fiend Voldemort and his minions.
Rated PG-13 for intense fantasy violence.