The End of an Era: Deathly Hallows Pt 2 sets new bar for fantasy


This weekend marks the last hurrah for the Harry Potter film franchise. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (book) was released in 1997, Pottermania fully hit the U.S. in 2000 with the release of Goblet of Fire,* the film franchise began in 2001, and the final book was released almost exactly four years ago.  Suffice it to say – we have spent a long time inhabiting the wizarding world of J.K. Rowling in one form or another.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 has sold an unholy number of tickets for the midnight premiere, with regular reports of sold out screenings a week in advance.  Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 will surely go out with a bang financially.  What’s so surprising is how it positions itself as one of the best fantasy films ever made – better even than any of the Lord of the Rings films.

The film picks up where Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 left off: Harry, Hermione, and Ron are still on the hunt to find and destroy Voldemort’s remaining Horcruxes.  The first scene in Part 2 launches the film with a subtle suggestion of what’s to come: A simple exchange between Harry and the goblin Griphook is a taut piece of quality drama, with Daniel Radcliffe finally claiming his throne as a legit actor and Warwick Davis giving Griphook the charisma of a mafioso.  The whole cast knows it’s the final show, and their skills are on full display.

Working with what is still arguably a kids’ story, director David Yates interrupts a few heavy scenes with cheap laughs, but overall he plays it straight. Many kudos belong to Yates for crafting a true film, and not merely an entry in a big budget film franchise from a major studio.  The creative license allotted to Yates allows for an artistic flourish that serves the story.  From still moments of reflection to epic battle sequences, you can feel the touch of a creative human being on this film – not a distanced bureaucratic machine.  Musical cues come in where they count (for the most part), and then disappear so the cast can shoulder the brunt of the emotional punch.  Whereas Snape’s motivations felt poorly developed in books, the film’s visual depiction of Snape through his memories and Alan Rickman’s delivery is able, in only minutes of screen time, to complete Rowling’s gesture toward the character’s complexity.

One can’t talk about the incremental maturation of the Harry Potter film franchise without mentioning Alfonso Cuarón.  After Chris Columbus’ banal presentation of the first two chapters, Cuarón milked the grim drama from Prisoner of Azkaban to craft a darkened mood that would persist through the rest of the series (save for the incredibly awkward Goblet of Fire by Mike Newell).  Cuarón also allowed Yates the space to push his directorial vision: Prizoner of Azkaban is one of the best films of the franchise because it actually has character.  The color palette, dynamic shot composition, and quiet character moments that make Deathly Hallows so re-watchable were first seen in Prisoner of Azkaban.  Cuarón made it safe to go darker, be more creative, and treat the audience with respect within a system known for being stifling.  If you have loved Harry Potter 3, 5, 6, 7, you owe Cuarón a thank you card.**

It’s also godsend that J.K. Rowling, who had final say on the scripts, was able to wield enough power to guide the films to completion while keeping them artistically intact. Had the series avoided or softened the darker themes it would have mirrored the U.S.’s larger cultural attitudes towards the difficult and unseemly.  Instead, when The Daily Prophet becomes a tool of corrupt politicians, Sirius Black tells Harry “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters,” or Dolores Umbridge wields bureaucratic dictatorial power, it’s easy to see the parallels to the ailments of the Muggle world.  Even the way in which Voldemort utilizes fear to terrorize the wizarding world into obeying his commands holds an undercurrent commentary on terrorism.  As seen in the U.S. with the reactionary Patriot Act, wars in Iraq & Afghanistan, Homeland Security grope fests at the airports, and skyrocketing defense spending, those who exploit fear for personal gain come in all shapes and sizes of wizard robes.  It would have been a shame if the films failed to grow with their audience, tackling adult issues for children coming into that world, and we’re fortunate that they did.

The overall impression is that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 is the best fantasy film (I have seen), better than any chapters of Lord of the Rings.  Even as someone who enjoyed Lord of the Rings, the Tolkien tale doesn’t dive headlong past the melodramatic but instead hedges its bets both narratively and artistically (Peter Jackson’s direction isn’t nearly as interesting as the later Potter films). Despite Balrogs, fallen Boromirs, or dark tidings, Lord of the Rings always retained a quaintness that told you everything would be okay in the end.  Compare that to Deathly Hallows: Part 2, wherein you don’t see, but have to hear a character being brutally killed; when the trio of characters run through a bloody battle that’s destroying their childhood safehouse, Hogwarts; when a predictable speech yields some truth instead of cliché – the last Potter film plays your heart-strings like a professional harpist because not everything is going to be okay.  

A fantasy film has never played an audience with such emotional sincerity; thanks to improvements in the script, the acting, and the creative vision behind the film, Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 is the new standard for quality fantasy drama.

POSSIBLE MINOR SPOILER, SKIP THREE PARAGRAPHS

I must, however, warn of the loathed epilogue, which is directly lifted from the book.  All the pieces of this segment–the writing, the acting (especially from the child actor playing Albus Severus Potter), the special effects to age Ron, Hermione, Harry, and Draco–felt like something out of the first Potter film – terrible.  My internal mental groan was audibly echoed throughout the cinema audience when the titlecard “19 years later” hit the screen, with much laughter ensuing when the middle aged kids were introduced.  It was just as awful in film format as it was in the book, since the epilogue serves no purpose other than to desperately grasp at some misguided sentiment by showing that Harry named his kids after a few dead folks.  This is the only thing that is truly bad about this film.

It is also frustrating for Yates to hint at the possibility of good blossoming from Draco Malfoy from films 6-7.2, yet completely drop the ball at the most opportune moment.  Merely having Malfoy quietly not side with his family would have rung out like a thunderclap. Why Yates would hint at character development but then decide not to deliver is a mystery.

My final major gripe is why the film makes a rather obvious dig at the Irish without narrative prompting.  McGonagall is preparing Hogwarts for battle and tells a student he should work with Seamus Finnigan since he has a “penchant for pyrotechnics” (paraphrased).  As per Rowling’s contract, all of the Potter films must be filmed in the U.K. and use only British actors, so pairing pyrotechnics with an Irish student (read = IRA bombings) is stunningly flagrant and out of bloody nowhere.

POSSIBLE SPOILERS OVER

The conventional wisdom regarding sequels is that they usually peter out creatively by the third bout.  Alien 3, RoboCop 3, Terminator 3, all parts of initially great franchises that trip over themselves thematically like a Three Stooges skit.  It does help that there’s a clear road map provided by the books, but it’s still quite remarkable that the Harry Potter films overall got better, particularly (as mentioned) by the third one.

Going into the final film I thought Prisoner of Azkaban would still hold out as the best entry in the series, but Yates somehow beat Cuarón’s workDeathly Hallows Pt. 2 isn’t the best merely because it’s the culmination of the entire series and the events held within such a tight time frame automatically elevate it to the top.  It’s apparent that everyone gave this final film their all, and a reminder of why big budget films still attract audiences.  Entertainment doesn’t inherently have to be synonymous with big, vapid, expensive, dumb.  It can be magical.

-Remington Smith

*According to Wikipedia and my experience with the book series

**You might even argue that if Prisoner of Azkaban hadn’t succeeded, it could have altered the way in which Potter film studio Warner Bros. handled its other cash cow: The Dark Knight.  Hundreds of millions of dollars based on an existing property, yet one director gets to see his vision unfold without messy, typical Hollywood interference – there are some clear parallels.

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8 responses to “The End of an Era: Deathly Hallows Pt 2 sets new bar for fantasy

  1. McGonagall’s comment about Seamus had nothing to do with IRA. Haven’t you seen the previous films? Seamus is the one who’s always blowing himself up and ends up with a smoky face.

  2. I think you’re reading WAY too much into the Irish thing. The reason for that line is a reference to previous movies (which I’m fresh from watching all 7 over the past 4 days), when Seamus would attempt a bunch of spells that would always result in them blowing up in his face. Also, in Goblet of Fire, he makes reference to this but talks about how much he likes blowing stuff up. I’m sure it’s just a character beat from the books.

    Anywho, I’ll be seeing this one bright and early tomorrow, and I hope it’s as good as part 1. If it is, I think I’ll probably end up holding it on par with Lord of the Rings, but I whole-heartedly disagree that Rings delved into melodrama. Also, Jackson’s directorial style is equally as impressive as Yates’, but they are completely different. Jackson is much more classical with Rings, and Yates is clearly going for a more modern aesthetic, and while I think Yates’ great direction might be more obvious upon first glance, I think Jackson’s is actually better (his ability, if nothing else, to make you believe in the different sizes of all the characters using any number of old and new tricks from CGI to forced perspective is really impressive).

    All this said, Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite film, but I would say Deathly Hallows Part 1 is within my top 20 for sure, and if Part 2 is as good, I think I’d probably lump them both together within my top 10. But that’s too much to assume without seeing the movie.

    • Someone else mentioned that it’s a character trait previous established in the books and films, but that still means that the Irish guy is known for being a pyro, which still seems like a little jab. Since I had no background recollection on the kid at all, pairing those things together felt really awkward and blatant.

  3. Great review! Not sure if I agree that it’s better than 3, but I would say it was well done. Also I think the word “ungodly” instead of “unholy” works best for the amount of tickets sold, as it is describing something outrageous. Just a thought!

  4. Good? yes. Better than lord of the rings? not really. I call it near equal.
    Maybe it’s personal preference, but I liked the quaint. I liked it because quaint, in and of itself, does not assure you that everything is going to be alright. It reminds you of what you have to loose.
    Just curious, does your knowledge of all the actors cause you to read all this sub-text into things or is that normal for you regardless of prior knowledge? I almost never catch all these double meanings you point out (in general, not just with this movie).

    Minor spoilers

    Lastly, I think Draco leaving with his parents was just as major as him staying with his classmates because he didn’t cross over an join. He crossed and his whole family put their backs to the lot of it and left. They finally woke up out of their pure-blood snobbery and put Voldemort behind them. Voldemort was loosing some of his closest followers even as he appeared to be at his apex. It was because of that scene that the train station was necessary. Potter and Draco could both put their kids on the train and not whip their wands out. But even that was secondary to Potter telling his son that Snape was “the bravest man I ever knew”. Those, to me, were important.

    • The Filmsmith

      I guess I felt LOTR didn’t dive enough into the darker stuff like this Potter film to make me feel like the quaint was seriously at risk. Maybe I should revisit the films, but the only time it brought me to tears might have been Gandalf’s death.

      The double meaning thing is just part and parcel of being a history major/news hound. Knowing some of the history between the Irish and the Brits was what prompted the thought, I swear I wasn’t looking for it. So many of the side characters (in both the books and the films) are not on my radar at all, so when I heard Irish tied to pyro, it jumped out as a jab.

      MINOR SPOILERS

      I could see the reading of the family walking away, but I took it as a cowards way out. They’re opportunists, which kind of makes them worse in a way. I do like the interpretation of the epilogue between Draco and Harry, since in the book Rowling decides to keep the animosity between the character, but in the film they’re pretty chill.

  5. Not sure why everyone is dumping on the epilogue, I absolutely loved it. It gave the perfect emotional note to end on, and I thought the digital effects were remarkably subtle and made the actors look the right age.

    I absolutely loved the film, and if you put Parts 1 and 2 together (as I suspect most will, the same way most put Lord of the Rings together as one big long film), I would rank it as high as in my top 10 favorite films (I was a big fan of the series up to this point, but Deathly Hallows really blew away all expectations I had for it and escalated the genre to a level I had only hoped for in the past but never thought it would actually get to).

    I never even read the books, and I can definitely say I was in tears multiple times through the movie. It’s tough when the material is handled this well and it’s a franchise I’ve been with since I was 13 years old. To say I feel invested in the characters is a major understatement.

    All the tiny character beats that David Yates and Steve Kloves were able to inject into this grand, epic tale really worked for me. Without all of that, this feels a lot more like just a big epic story that strives to be bigger than its characters just for splendor’s sake, but by adding in small moments (example after spoiler tag) and giving the actors and their performances room to breathe, Yates has really created a masterpiece that, yes, I would say is on par with Lord of the Rings (which I consider my favorite film/series of all time)

    Spoilers***

    When Harry is finished seeing Snape’s memory, and the reveal that he will die to defeat Voldemort, Yates doesn’t make the mistake of cutting to the next scene too quickly. Instead, he lets the realization hit you as hard as it hits Harry, and gives you just a few seconds to see the full weight of that reveal hit Harry, and then he continues with the story. Little moments like that are what, in my opinion, escalates this film from merely very good to excellent.

    End of spoilers***

    • The Filmsmith

      That moment really stood out for me as well. There’s a lot of action, but it still manages some quieter moments.

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