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 work. Deathly 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.
*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.