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Josh Reviews Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One!

It is very rare for a film or TV franchise to have an opportunity to craft a finale for its characters and storylines on its own terms.  So often these long-form tales are interrupted by cancellation or poor box office, or they just peter out as subsequent sequels drain a once-vibrant franchise of originality and interest.

On TV, show-runners are occasionally able to craft a series-ending finale, but more often than not shows find themselves cancelled before they have a chance to do so.  In film series, the opportunity for a true finale is even more rare.  How many can you think of?  George Lucas brought his Star Wars series to a close with Return of the Jedi – a film that, while not eliminating the possibility of sequels, certainly wrapped up most of the story-lines and character arcs from the original trilogy.  (Of course, as we all know, Lucas did eventually continue making Star Wars films – to my eternal dismay.)  The original Star Trek cast had an opportunity to have a triumphant swan song in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (a film that, as it happens, I’ll be waxing poetic about on this site next week!).  There’s Back to the Future Part III.  Can you think of many others?

Did Die Hard with a Vengeance really serve as a true finale, in any sense, to that series?  Did Lethal Weapon 4? Did Jurassic Park 3? Will the Bond series ever have an ending?  I mentioned Star Trek above, and that’s a double-edged sword.  As great as it is that the original cast got a fine film finale, their Next Gen successors were denied that privilege as their series met its untimely end following the dismal box office of Star Trek: Nemesis.

Obviously, the Harry Potter films are a horse of a slightly different color, as the films aren’t charting their own course – rather they are adapting J.K. Rowling’s seven-novel story.  Still, that the film series has made it so far, so successfully – that every single novel has been adapted to film featuring almost entirely the same ensemble of actors and actresses – that most of the films have actually been pretty darn good — and that the film series is now preparing to take its final bow, not with a whimper but with an enormous bang – is really downright astounding.

I was luke-warm on the Harry Potter films at first, but I thought things started to turn around with film four: The Goblet of Fire.  Film five: The Order of the Phoenix remains my favorite of the bunch, but I was also quite taken with The Half-Blood Prince (even if I still don’t understand just what the heck it meant that Snape was the Half-Blood Prince).  (You can read my full review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince here.)  Those last two films left me eager for the story’s conclusion, and filled with high hopes that David Yates (returning to direct both parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, after having previously helmed both The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince) and his team would be able to stick the landing and give this series the film finale it deserves.

Having seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One, I can safely say: so far, so good!

I’ve heard some complaints from Potterites about this film feeling incomplete (since, of course, it only adapts the first half of the final book – meaning that the film is all set-up and little pay-off), but I didn’t feel that way.  Yes, there’s obviously still a whole heaping helping of story as-yet untold, and Harry’s long-promised final confrontation with Voldemort still hasn’t happened yet – but how is that any different than the ending of any of the six previous Harry Potter films?  I’ve never felt that ANY of the films ever reached a real ENDING – there was always the promise of more stories to come, and of greater challenges for Harry and his friends lurking in the near future.  Yes, this film ends on a cliffhanger that leaves me aching for the final film, but I didn’t feel like we were ripped away mid-scene or anything like that.  The filmmakers chose a powerful, poignant moment on which to end Part One, and I certainly walked out of the theatre feeling satisfied.

The Deathly Hallows Part One is a fairly leisurely-paced film.  Without rushing to cram the entire novel into one film, I appreciated how the filmmakers now had the time to let their story breathe a little bit.  Seeing as how we’ll soon be saying goodbye to all of these characters forever, I quite enjoyed getting the chance to spend some extra time with these familiar faces.  Despite its lengthy running-time, I never felt that the film dragged.  After seven films, I’m invested enough in Harry, Ron, Hermione and the rest that I didn’t get impatient during all the time spent watching the three struggle through their complicated feelings for one another while hiding in the woods.  That drama was as potent as any special effects pyrotechnics.

The film looks absolutely gorgeous.  The landscapes seen throughout the film are breathtakingly beautiful.  The visual effects — so clumsy back in the first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — have matured magnificently along with the storytelling.  There are some marvelous visual effects sequences, but my favorite is the realization of the older House Elf Kreacher.  The realism of this CGI character is staggering.  There are some close-ups of Kreacher’s face that are so realistic it’s mind-boggling.  My congratulations to all of the visual effects wizards involved with this project.

The film is dark dark dark.  It’s interesting seeing this so soon after watching The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  (You can read my advance review of that film here.)  The Dawn Treader is a film that has stepped back from the darkness of the first sequel, Prince Caspian, in an attempt to create a lighter, family-friendly movie.  I can understand their reasons for doing so, and for that film series it might very well be the right choice.  But the Harry Potter films (and, of course, J.K. Rowling’s books which inspired them) have gone in the opposite direction.  I have been extraordinarily pleased to watch the films get progressively more serious, mature, and grim as the series has moved towards its conclusion.  That has resulted in my being increasingly gripped by the saga, despite my being rather lukewarm on the first three installments.

Right from the opening of The Deathly Hallows Part One, in which we see Voldemort murder an unfortunate Hogwarts professor and then sit down to a meal with his minions, one knows without a doubt that this is not a movie for little children.  Things don’t lighten up much from there.  There are a few moments of brightness for our heroes (such as the Weasley wedding), but those moments are few and far between.  The movie tightens and tightens the pressure on Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and in the final tragic moments we can see that things are going to really come to a head in Part Two.

And as for those final moments: spectacular.  There were several young people in the theatre audience sitting behind me who were quietly moaning in agony for the death that they knew was coming in those closing minutes.  It’s fascinating to watch a story move people in that way, and that instance is just one of many in which this film begins to cash in the chips of the affection that we’ve built up towards all of these characters over the previous six films.

My only real complaint about the film is a minor one, but it bugs me nonetheless.  There’s another character who meets his demise pretty early in the film.  But I was shocked that this happened completely off-camera, and that it’s just mentioned once and then instantly forgotten.  I’ve been told that that is the way it happened in the book — but if that’s the case, then that is a moment when the filmmakers really should have diverged from the source material and allowed us to see this character’s heroic final moments.  I feel a little bit cheated that this character was written off so causally.

That’s a tiny speed-bump in an otherwise pretty spectacular effort.  I need for Part Two to get here immediately.

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