We’ve seen these characters transition from pre-teens to adults over the past 10 years, and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” marks the beginning of the end for the world’s most popular witches and wizards. Film series that go past third installments rarely keep the ideas as fresh or as focused as team Potter does (just ask James Bond, Anakin Skywalker or Jigsaw about ideas gone awry), but director, David Yates, on the scene since “Order of the Phoenix” (book five), maintains the visual splendor of this holiday cash cow whilst keeping the adventure alive — even if the film stops halfway(ish) through the final book. (Warning: if you haven’t seen the previous film, don’t read ahead.)
Year seven for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best friends, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), isn’t quite the academic enrichment they all hoped. With former headmaster of Hogwarts, Aldus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), gone, this Scooby-gang-with-wands doesn’t even make it back to school for their final year, instead finding themselves on the run from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (Ralph Fiennes) as the threat of the Death Eaters transforms from manageable criminal nuisance to a full-fledged army of wickedness with the muscle to match their diabolical plans. In “Half-Blood Prince” (book six), Harry learned from Dumbledore (Merlin, rest his soul) how to kill Voldemort — find the remaining horcruxes that contain splintered parts of the Dark Lord’s soul — and “Part 1” continues that quest, though the journey ends roughly in the middle of the final book of the J.K. Rowling series, with quite the haunting tease for things to come on July 15 of next year (unless they pull a “Half-Blood Prince” and push the film back six months…thanks Warner Bros.).
Far from the youthful innocence and corny humor of the Chris Columbus-directed “Potter” films (“Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Chamber of Secrets”), “Part 1” is darker with a slowly rising body count to match. David Yates maintains a small dose of laughs, but nothing substantial enough to subvert the gravity of Harry’s present situation. Like the tagline says, “No where is safe.” Get ready to say good-bye to beloved characters, not just one, and not just the villains.
It’s hard not to like these films, but the real surprise is how well crafted they’ve actually become. “Goblet of Fire” (book four) marked one of the weakest films, substituting cohesion for incoherent scene transitions and an ill-thought-out prom dance scene with a wizarding metal band. That’s what happens when a 734-page book (more than double the lengths of the previous books for the first three film adaptations) transforms into a two-hour film. Luckily, “Part 1” knows how to properly prepare for the end of a franchise, splitting the final book into two films (a move that “Twilight” even stole as it plans to split Stephanie Meyer’s final book, “Breaking Dawn”, into two films). It works quite well, allowing the filmmakers to take their time with character development and provide the fans with a few more months to prepare for the end of all-things-Potter.
Like comic books, these films have grown up with the fans, so beware of taking younger audience members to see it, with more deaths and even some jarring moments of torture, thanks to Helena Bonham Carter’s wildly caricatured, yet fantastic portrayal of the treacherous Bellatrix Lestrange, who’s just a few lacewing flies short of a Polyjuice Potion. Even a beautifully designed digital animation sequence has some CGI blood spatter.
All the major players make an appearance — Hargid (Robbie Coltrane), the Wealseys (even a newlywed member of the family), the Malfoys, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), “Mad-Eye” Moody (Brendan Gleeson), Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), a couple familiar house elves (don’t ask, I ain’t telling) and even some new faces, like new Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy) and Luna’s father, Xenophilius (Rhys Ifans).
All that to say, “Part 1” is still focused on the journey of Harry, Hermoine and Ron — more so than the other films — so prepare for 146 minutes of suspense as our young protagonists make impossible decisions without guidance from Dumbledore or any other wiser and older witches and wizards.
We’ve got one film left in the “Harry Potter” saga. Bask in the anticipation now, because in eight months, we’re all going to have to find another fantasy franchise to fill in for our nostalgic desire to fly and cast spells on people that annoy us. Until then, “Expecto Patronum!”
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