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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One

It's finally here: the first part of the official end of the Harry Potter series. The books have long since passed, but fans that need their Harry Potter fix still have two movies left with which to indulge themselves. And the fans seem to know it if box office numbers have anything to say on the matter. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part one) pulled in $125 million in the U.S. on its first weekend alone, and over $200 million extra internationally, smashing the franchise record of $102 million domestically for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. That number is nothing to scoff at either, especially considering the controversy over the splitting of the final book into two films. Fans of the books often wondered how they were going to pull off The Deathly Hallows back when we all thought there was only going to be one movie; the book, after all, is 784 pages long, and as much as the filmmakers have cut from previous books, doing so for The Deathly Hallows is incredibly tricky considering the number of plotlines needed to fulfill the agenda set up in The Half-blood Prince.

For that reason alone, The Deathly Hallows (part one) is perhaps the closest an HP film has come to the original source material since the original two films (directed by Chris Columbus). Coupled with the two movie split, this is a huge gamble. If you're going to split a movie in half, you have to justify that by creating a complete narrative that avoids leaving the audience with a cliffhanger, but is also open enough to warrant seeing the final installment. The Deathly Hallows (part one) comes close to meeting this task, though knowing whether the film is truly effective depends on what happens in the final half of the sequence. Still, what The Deathly Hallows (part one) offers
fans is an action-packed fantasy film that doesn't forget its core audience and sets the stage for the true climax of the series in part two.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part one) drops the audience right where The Half-Blood Prince left them: in darkness. Voldemort has risen to power, influencing and threatening the safety of the wizarding world. The Ministry of Magic is rapidly trying to control public hysteria, mudbloods (wizards born of muggle parents) are being targeted and killed by Voldemort's army, and Harry Potter is in greater danger than he ever was before. But Harry Potter and his friends have a job to do: they have to find the last few horcruxes—the pieces of Voldemort's soul that prevent the Dark Lord from completely dying—and destroy them so as to end Voldemort's reign and bring things back to the way they were. And in their journey they'll discover more about themselves, the world around them, and what they must do and sacrifice to protect everything they hold dear.

The Deathly Hallows is perhaps one of the darkest of the Harry Potter films, even when compared to The Order of the Phoenix. Unlike previous films, the government-level adjustments to wizarding society in The Deathly Hallows are manipulated directly by Voldemort, instead of by the fear of what people are often unwilling to acknowledge (in the case of the wizards in The Order of the Phoenix, it is the fear of Voldemort's return, which, of course, proves to be a somewhat ironic fear, since it more or less plays into Voldemort's hands). The result is a more personal kind of darkness: characters betray one another—even people you'd never expect—proving that it has become increasingly more difficult in this world to know who to trust; likewise, people quickly begin to sacrifice their freedoms in the fear of something they feel helpless to resolve. Astute viewers will immediately begin to draw parallels between The Deathly Hallows and our own world, particularly given the changes in the last few months in the U.S. and elsewhere. Unlike our world, however, the one presented in The Deathly Hallows is reasonably projected from Voldemort’s rapid removal of wizarding society’s security blankets. Hogwarts is no longer the safe haven it had always been, even given the handful of dangerous incidences that have occurred there over the franchise. For Harry and his companions, this is doubly problematic, because what The Half-blood Prince showed them is that Voldemort can get to them no matter where they go. The Deathly Hallows continues this trend to even greater effect—without security blankets, Harry, Hermione, and Ron are both on the run and more desperate than ever to find the horcruxes they need to destroy Voldemort for good, because sooner or later, Voldemort and his men will find them and kill them.

The shift in tone, beginning most clearly with The Order of the Phoenix and culminating in The Deathly Hallows, coupled with the radical change of scenery, also make possible the ramping up of the action that has been teasing us for six movies. There are fewer restrictions on the characters, good and evil--both because of the conditions of the emerging world and the original source material--and this freedom is reflected clearly in the action. Duels are rugged and uncontrolled—an obvious contrast to the previous six films, all of which take place in the confines of school and the educational structure. Likewise, The Deathly Hallows is unfettered by a narrative dominated by children, not simply because the main characters are now practically adults; if anyone remembers the enormous duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort—and loved it as much as I did—then they’ll be equally pleased with The Deathly Hallows, where advanced levels of magic are in higher frequency and presented in situations entirely external from the school, thus adding a certain degree of realism to the story. That is to say that magic in The Deathly Hallows is not centered on training in a school, but on using it to achieve one’s personal goals, whether that be murder, manipulation, or pleasure. For example, we see the polyjuice potion used both as a deception for protection against certain death and as a spy device under much more serious circumstances than spying on one’s fellow classmates—specifically, to kill. I've always been pleased with how the filmmakers have attempted to render the magic from the books, and there are certainly no complaints here.

What The Deathly Hallows seems apt to do is open the floodgates that were gently cracked in The Order of the Phoenix (in the Dumbledore/Voldemort duel), but pushed closed again by The Half-blood Prince (arguably one of the worst films of the series). Harry, Hermione, and Ron are all obviously coming into their own, more secure in their abilities and unafraid to show it. Likewise, the loosening of Voldemort's leash—the danger posed to him by the Ministry of Magic and its allies--makes the first major sequence a thousand times more threatening than anything we've seen before precisely because of where it is placed: the muggle world, with a handful of overlapping spaces. The Deathly Hallows is far more action-oriented than previous franchise films, which makes for a far more rushed plot than HP fans might be used to. While this might seem like a criticism of the film, the quick pace actually enhances the desperation exhibited by the characters. Harry, Hermione, and Ron all ride on the same sheer dumb luck (as McGonagall would say) that got them through every major film plot in the series, not because they have a choice—which one might argue they had when they were younger—but because there are no other options.

That doesn’t mean the plot doesn’t have its problems. For viewers of the films who are unfamiliar with the books, much of what happens in The Deathly Hallows will feel incomplete. This is because the first half is intimately tied with the second. There are a number of elements that ring suspiciously of deus ex machina, for example, but which will—we can hope—be resolved nicely in the second part. Whether this is a problem of advertising or simply a mistake on the part of the filmmakers is difficult to say. The one crucial failing of the producers for The Deathly Hallows is that they have decided to wait until next summer to release the final installment while also doing very little to help viewers understand why both pieces have to be seen to get the full picture—I would argue that non-readers of the series are not particularly interested in issues of adaptation, which is fair.

One of the other flaws with the film is the visuals. While most of the CG renderings are beautifully done—such as the first major fight sequence and the various uses of magic throughout the film—the one weakness involves much more complicated CG elements: characters. One of my biggest pet peeves is in how filmmakers use CG. While the Harry Potter films have never been at the highest end of the visual scale, the rendering of several familiar characters in The Deathly Hallows could have been done more efficiently, particularly since I know what will happen in the second installment. Dobby, for example, looks less detailed than he did when he first appeared in The Chamber of Secrets; the same can be said for Nagini—Voldemort’s snake companion, who has a fairly prominent role in this particular film. Maybe this has more to do with my familiarity with the graphics quality of the last few years than with any degradation of the visuals in Harry Potter, but as much as I enjoyed the film, I couldn't help taking notice of how certain visuals didn't seem up to par. The good thing to take away from this criticism, however, is that the film is not as poorly rendered as The Expendables (2010), which did such a piss-poor job of rendering CG blood that I literally laughed out loud the first time the dark substance appeared on screen. To put it another way: the worst of the graphics in The Deathly Hallows are simply average, rather than exceptional (which I think the final installment of the film deserves).

But the shimmering star of the film has nothing to do with good graphics, high-flying action, or an appropriately rushed plot. Perhaps the greatest part of The Deathly Hallows is the chemistry between the main actors--Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint--and the supporting cast--who are only briefly on screen. Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint work superbly together. Their comedic and emotional timing is arguably the strongest it has ever been, demonstrating that we are dealing with a group of actors who have not only grown into themselves, but into the characters as well. In a way, they have grown with their characters and seem remarkably at ease fulfilling their roles. Humor is particularly well played throughout the film, both for the main actors and the supporting cast members. Ron, as always, acts as comic relief, but his jokes are no longer placed in moments of childish fancy, since doing so would cheapen the moment. Instead, Ron’s humor always acts as tension relief either during less-stressful sequences or at the ends of particularly dark ones. The supporting cast members are equally as funny. Fred and George (James and Oliver Phelps), for example, share a particularly touching moment early in the film in which humor is used as a kind of comforting device—and it works, giving the impression that these characters and the people surrounding them are all part of a real family unit. As much as the story focuses on Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the secondary cast members are equally as important, representing the solid ground on which the main characters rest their hopes and dreams. The fact that the secondary characters—with the exception of one or two new faces—move as smoothly on screen as our heroes—both in how they display the kaleidoscope of emotions that the opening thirty minutes of The Deathly Hallows offers and in how they relay humor to themselves and to us—makes losing oneself in the film remarkably easy. That's what we go to the movies for, isn't it? To lose ourselves. To become part of the world being presented before us.

In the case of Harry Potter, we're losing ourselves in a kind of dream, one that is full of adventure and wonder in a way that our own mundane world seems to be incapable of providing (it isn't actually incapable, but so many people assume it is). That's what we've been riding on since 2001: the awe-inspiring beauty of a world whose magic changes the very nature of how people interact with their surroundings. The Deathly Hallows is a continuation, but also a culmination and expansion on those moments of immersion. Now all we have to do is wait until July to lose ourselves one last time.

(Note: I originally sent this to Strange Horizons, which explains why it's a little late appearing here. They didn't take it, but not because it wasn't good; they decided to reject it because I waited a little too long to send it to them, and so they thought it seemed too old to offer anything "new." So, I'm posting it here for your enjoyment, and I will be sending something else to them soon enough--possibly something on Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (the movie)).

Directing: 4/5
Cast: 5/5
Writing: 4/5
Visuals: 3/5
Adaptation: 4/5
Overall: 4/5

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  1. I haven't read the books, and this movie was brutal. Character lurch about for no reason, and what was that Harry and Hermione dance scene about?

    Ugh. Really, worst movie I've seen in quite some time.

  2. I would hold your opinion until you've seen the full sequence. I think the problem with the adaptation is that it doesn't take into account that a lot of folks have no idea what happens in the books (such as yourself), and, so, staying faithful means there is a lot of confusion over what is going on.

    As for the dance scene: he did it in order to relieve the tension of the loss of Ron and their journey and all that has been going on around them (the fall of the wizarding world, etc.).

  3. Possibly, but it came off as SUPER creepy, especially considering the choice of music.

    And, um, no. If they wanted me to judge the two movies together, they would have released them...together. Certain responsibilities come with releasing a movie, and coherency is one of them.

  4. Great movie and great review. This film, more than any other, I feel, is one for the fans of the book. Non book readers can also watch it, but the experience was, for me, much richer for having read the books.

  5. Jordan: That's why they labeled it "part one." It's not "The Deathly Hallows," with the next movie being "Some Other Movie." It's "The Deathly Hallows (part one)." The interconnectedness of the pieces is explicit--more so than other franchises that have stuck two intimately connected pieces in two different movies, but never told you that the first part relied on the second part. Here, they've made that clear, and since you know it's an adaptation of a book, it's even more clear.

    Elfy: It probably is more geared towards readers, but I think if non-readers simply realize that the two parts have to be seen to get the full picture, it all comes together well enough.

  6. No dice. Empire Strikes back was the second in a trilogy and it's the best in the series. Even Pirates of the Carribean, though a shocker in the way they left Jack in the lurch, didn't make a crappy movie with the excuse of "it'll all be solved in the sequel."

  7. Actually, the end of PotC 2 was left exactly with "we'll solve it in the sequel." The movie ends with the characters deciding they're going to do something about Jack, but it's never explained what they're going to do until the last movie.

    Empire Strikes Back: Episode VII, not Episode VII (part one).

    The Matrix: Reloaded and Revolutions. Reloaded ended on a cliffhanger, and we were supposed to assume that the third movie would solve it.

    In the case of HP7. You know this is the final movie. You know it's been cut into two pieces. That's been established for over a year. You also know it's based on a single text. It's not unreasonable to expect you to understand that the two pieces make up an intimate whole and should both be seen to get the full picture. They're two pieces to the same movie (sort of like LOTR's extended cut movies, where the flicks are cut in half and split over two discs, with the labels "part one" and "part two").

  8. Okay, part of the difference is a the movies I'm named have cliffhanger endings, versus TONS of elements from HP that are Deus Ex Machina (something the series is FAMOUS for).

    I'm willing to accept that an ending might be continued, so long as the rest of the movie is complete and engaging.

    If a two movies need to be see together to makes sense, perhaps they should be shown together???

    You could watch Revolutions, and it was a complete movie, except for how it ended. You left the movie thinking, okay, I'll have to wait 3 months for the ending, sure. With Harry Potter you're asked to leave the theatre thinking, okay, that made no sense, but I'll have to wait six months to get any answers.

  9. And that's where we agree. I think they should release the two parts closer together. To wait until July is ridiculous, especially considering how the first part relies heavily on the second part to make sense. That's crappy thinking on their part. Financially, I understand why they want to release them far apart, but if you're going to make a film that sticks so close to the books, right up to even following the structure (first half is clarified by the second), then you have to make it possible for people to get the full picture without the possibility of memory loss.

    Just plain stupid, if you ask me :P.

  10. Yeah. The problem is that the first one was so intelligible if you haven't read the books, that they might have lost me as a viewer.

    If it had been a great, standalone movie that didn't end (like Revolutions) I would be more likely to see the rest of it.

    I think they should have taken liberties with the books. They do that like CRAZY with Phil Dick, and his movies have grossed over a billion.

  11. HP7 was kinda slow but yet visually entertaining to say the least. Brain Candy for an hour and a half. For a non-book reader like me, I feel they could have made it more interesting.

  12. Jordan: This was the risk they should have realized they were taking. HP7 was such a massive book, but they've cut the hell out of all the previous books (HP1 and 2 are my favorites, to be honest, with 4 and 5 coming second best, 3 as second worst, and 6 as the worst), so it makes no sense why they didn't cut the hell out of this last one (except that HP7 was a fairly complicated book with a lot of parts that needed cleaning up from previous books).

    That said, I get what you have problems with. I prefer the split so far, but only because I know what will happen in the next half, and can see all the pieces set up like a very complicated chess board. That said, at least check out my review of the last part when I go see it, because if they screw up the connection to the material in part one, I will be all kinds of pissed and I'll tear the movie to pieces, thus saving you money :P.

    Kerwin: I think it's suffering from a missing climax, which is what comes in the final part. The Dobby bit at the end was nice, but not quite the big moment one could hope for in a movie.

  13. In my boundless stupidity, I believe I accidentally identified Empire as Episode VII, when it is actually Episode V.