The biggest franchise of this generation is coming to an end. Well, almost. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, the two-and-a-half-hour first half of J.K. Rowling's epic finale is now playing in theaters, delivering to audiences yet another engaging, rich experience. The movie suffers as one would expect from being split in two, but it's still another strong entry in the series and a setup for the action-packed climax that arrives next June.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, Hogwarts is gone, replaced by the menacing reality of the outside world. Voldemort is becoming stronger by the day, threatening to overthrow the Ministry of Magic and kidnapping and torturing wizards and muggles alike to extend his influence. Harry is under constant guard. The Order of the Phoenix risks their lives to keep him alive. People are dying and disappearing every day, and it's only getting worse.
In other words, Harry Potter is not a kid's franchise any longer. The previous movie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, marked the final transition for the series from childhood adventure to adult action-drama. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is dark, serious and ominous. The movie focuses on Harry, Hermione and Ron's efforts to hunt down the remaining Horcruxes that keep Voldemort immortal. Much of the movie is spent with the three of them and only the three of them, except for when they run into the occasional threat. Though there is humor as there has been throughout the series, the movie primarily relies on the acting talent of the three stars (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint) and the direction by David Yates.
It's amazing how far the actors have come since they debuted in The Sorcerer's Stone/The Philosopher's Stone. Now adults in real life, the three have developed into able actors, all capable of the tense scenes shared throughout. The issues their characters face are more serious than ever and the actors treat them as such.
Yates delivers another fine-looking movie, following up on his shaky debut with The Order of the Phoenix and his stellar comeback in The Half-Blood Prince. The movie looks gorgeous and even his use of simple fade-to-black transitions works in the movies favor. He sets a solemn tone for the picture and yet never lets it become too depressing. The movie, working off a script by Steve Kloves (who wrote all of the Harry Potter movies save for the disappointing fifth film), trims a lot of the finer details and subplots of the story despite its running time, opting to emphasize the dynamics between the main characters instead. The decision pays off as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I is a rich tale of discovery and survival.
As good as the movie looks, Yates reaffirms that he isn't the greatest action director - which doesn't bode too well for the final movie, which culminates in a massive battle scene. The first action scene in the movie - one where the Order uses decoys to transfer Harry between safe houses - is surprisingly weak. The book's version is much longer and more exciting, but in the movie it feels like an afterthought. The other action scenes scattered throughout are short bursts that arrive without much warning and end just as quickly. They occur similarly throughout the book, but the action could have been embellished for the sake of entertainment. In any action movie, especially a big budget one such as this, the director should aim to imprint at least one truly remarkable and memorable action sequence upon the audience; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I lacks that.
The biggest flaw with Part I is that it is, in fact, one half of a single story that was never intended to be split apart. I'm a proponent of splitting the movie simply because the story is so rich, detailed and epic - Part I cuts out a lot of little things despite its length, and it's Part II that has the real complexities - but other than out of necessity, Part I does end after a small but gratifying climax and a quick cliffhanger. That's not exactly what you want the audience to walk out of theater with, but Yates and Kloves end the picture at the best possible point available to them.
Fans who've read the book and even those who haven't but who have fully embraced the series for what it is will not be bothered by the split. It's hard to imagine that there's only one more Harry Potter movie, but even with sentimentalities set aside, Part I is a worthy entry in the series. People who know less about the complex back stories the movie is forced to gloss over might find the picture more frustrating. Some critics have stated that the movie suffers from pacing issues in the second act, which isn't entirely accurate. The movie is slower and more dialogue-based in the middle, but it's never slow.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I is an incomplete movie, and as a result some may feel cheated, but for Harry Potter fans it is a well-made, well-written and well-acted movie that sets the stage for the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort. Now we just have to wait seven more months to see how it ends.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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