Ten years ago, kiddie-friendly director Chris Colombus took on the challenge of turning one of the true pop-culture phenomenons of the end of the 20th century into a mega-budget, mega-grossing blockbuster film franchise. Although these early entries (The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets) were marred by dodgy CGI, wildly uneven acting performances by the child cast, and an overabundance of sugar and schmaltz – the franchise came into its own with the arrival of auteur Alfonso Cuaron on the third (and arguably best) film of the saga, The Prisoner of Azkaban.
The films immediately took on a visual depth and a tonal maturity that were largely absent from the introductory adventures. Aesthetically, what was once bathed in a warm amber glow became grim and ashen; and as the young actors came into puberty and honed their craft, they were able to convey true pathos as the stakes were raised. After Cuaron, David Yates came aboard to helm the franchise as it delved into deeper and darker territory, culminating in Professor Dumbledore’s death in The Half-Blood Prince, and the dreary existential journey of Deathly Hallows, Pt. I. If that film was the slow burn (some would say far too slow), then Deathly Hallows Part II is the exploding powderkeg.
In this second half of the grand finale, the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), and his followers, which include the traitorous Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), and the nasty witch Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) have taken over Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Meanwhile, the wand-wielding heroic trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) set out to finish their quest to find and destroy the remaining pieces of Voldemort’s soul, which he spread apart over several physical objects (called Horcruxes) in an effort to gain immortality.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II is a film that filled me with indifference. It’s a two-hour climax that, more often than not, feels frustratingly anti-climactic. Structurally, it is very similar to Transformers: Dark of the Moon – there is an hour of set-up (highlighted by a gorgeous ride on a white dragon), followed by a spectacular, hour-long battle full of dazzling light bursts from dueling wizard wands, stone knights battling hideous giants, and spiders the size of volkswagons menacing the school walls.
For some odd reason, it seems director David Yates, (who ably manned the previous three Potter films) decided to eschew impactful character-driven moments in favor of this murkily-shot spectacle. Major character deaths that stabbed readers in the heart on the written page inexplicably occur off-camera. Perhaps it was an intentional move on the part of Yates to soften the blows for the franchise’s younger disciples, but for more mature fans of the Potter saga, much of the emotional resonance was stripped away.
That’s not to say that there aren’t moments that truly hit hard, even for casual viewers of the Potter movies. Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort is ominous and rife with tension; Yates allows for dramatic silence during this encounter that makes arm hair stand at attention. Alan Rickman, who has always lent the series the commanding, weighty presence it needed, is once again masterful here as the complicated Professor Snape. The true motives behind his actions throughout Harry’s life are finally revealed in a moving, well-crafted exposition dump towards the end of the film.
Since Prisoner of Azkaban, the real strength of the Harry Potter saga is the relationship forged between Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Despite the miscues and mis-managed bombast of the final battle, I can ultimately recommend Hallows Part II because these three talented young actors have done a remarkable job of fleshing out their characters and making us care about what happens to them. Without that vital connection, muggles, quidditch, golden snitches, gillyweed, dementors, and boggarts would just be silly words in a series of movies that have no lasting cultural impact. But thanks to Harry Potter’s message that friendship conquers all, and the realization of that moral by the fine young actors, this saga will endure for generations to come. If only they could have gone out on a bit of a higher note…