My response to the Harry Potter movies has been very mixed and contrarian, especially considering that it’s a series which hasn’t really varied all that much in quality, aside from a big step up in quality beginning with 2004’s “Prisoner of Azkaban.” How much I enjoyed a particular book in the series has never been a good indication of how much I would enjoy the corresponding film, and my rankings of the books vs. the movies is almost completely different. Furthermore, no one else I know really seems to be able to agree on what the strongest and weakest films in the series are. I’m not sure if this is because the series has generally been so consistent that picking out certain ones as superior to others is a case of comparing apples to oranges, or because different people look for very different things in the films.
My feelings towards the books are so strong that I judge these films quite differently from most others. What I mostly look for in the Harry Potter movies is the film’s ability to portray emotions and story details from the books in genuinely cinematic ways, to visualize them in a way that the books weren’t able to, and to make the action and emotions more visceral and immediate. This is why, for instance, “Order of the Phoenix” worked so much better for me as a film than a book: in the book the climax was page after page of poorly described hallway chases and battles. Rowling’s prose made the whole thing very difficult to follow or understand, whereas in the film version the whole sequence was boiled down to its essence, and became an exciting, visually memorable, and high stakes action scene. While the movies aren’t really able to convey the excitement of being a wizard, and the daily routines and misadventures of the characters, which was always my favorite thing about the books, the best ones are able to make the stories more thrilling and immediate than Rowling was able to.
This was one of the reasons I was so excited about the final installment in the series: the second half of “Deathly Hallows” is one of the most jam-packed segments of the series, alternating between lengthy action sequences and dramatic character moments without any of the padding the first half was filled with. I wasn’t a big fan of all of this: the Deathly Hallows themselves and the strange wand switching rules seem like weird last minute inclusions that were only added to provide storytelling shortcuts, many of the deaths only seem to be added for cheap shock value, the final battle is pretty underwhelming and nonsensical, and the epilogue is possibly the most poorly written and conceived section of any of the books. But the overall effect was still fairly breathtaking, and the revelations about Severus Snape and Aunt Petunia are some of my favorite moments in the series.
Not to mention that Part One was, against all odds, one of the best entries in the film series. I figured that if director David Yates had done such impressive work with a section of the book I disliked, he must have quite a film in store for the good parts. Unfortunately “Deathly Hallows, Part Two” doesn’t come close to matching the first part: whereas that film was atmospheric, elegant, and well-paced, this one comes off as rather rote, rushed, and shoddily edited. It merely presents dramatic plot points and then moves on, as if checking off big moments from a list, while unnecessarily protracting certain scenes for no real reason, in a manner reminiscent of the worst aspects of Chris Columbus’s first two films.
Admittedly this doesn’t really set in until the second half of the film. “Part 2” might start off a bit shakily, and it would be difficult for it not to, considering that it opens in the middle of a story. However, after the first few minutes of Harry and co. awkwardly interrogating secondary characters, the film quickly moves on to it’s first (and by far best) big action set piece, in which Harry and his friends break into Gringott’s bank to recover the next Horcrux. The sequence, which begins with a nervous Hermione disguised as Bellatrix Lestrange attempting to fool a goblin, and climaxes with an escape via dragon, is probably the best action sequence that Rowling wrote, and it is portrayed just as well in the film. Yates has a genuine talent for staging action scenes that none of the previous Potter directors possessed, and he paces the scene brilliantly: it’s the film’s only sequence that manages not to feel rushed, or to overstay it’s welcome.
The return to Hogwarts afterwards is also well done, though the editing seems to get a bit shaky here, as certain characters appear and disappear in confusing ways. Many beloved characters that weren’t seen in the previous film reappear, as well as Hogwart’s itself. One of the greatest strengths of the films is their ability to show us around Hogwarts and allow the audience to understand where things are and how it’s set up in a way the books weren’t quite able to do. Because of this, the destruction it undergoes in the final installment is more heartbreaking in the film, as familiar areas are reduced to rubble.
However, once the film get around to the final battle, the seams start to come apart. The whole thing is a bit of a letdown, since there have been so many fantasy battle scenes similar to this before, and it’s difficult not to compare it unfavorably to the big climax in 2002’s “The Two Towers,” though the sequence where the wizards join together to place a magical barrier around the castle is quite breathtaking. While the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort was a bit of an anticlimax in the book, that seems merciful compared to the silly way it’s protracted in the movie, with Voldemort attempting to convince the good wizards to join him with a ridiculous big movie villain speech, and a strange and laughable sequence where Voldemort and Harry fight while flying through the air. The ultimate effect is that the excitement of the film dies about halfway through, replaced with dull, plodding, and uninspired sequences of people shooting light at one another. Worst of all, the wonderful character moments from the book are rushed through as if Yates just wanted to get to the next action scene: Harry’s final conversation with Dumbledore barely happens, Snape’s revelation doesn’t have a tenth of the power it did in the book and barely seems to affect Harry, and the deaths are reduced to Harry looking at dead bodies for a few seconds and looking sad. Many beloved characters, like Hagrid barely appear and are given nothing to do, and even the subplot about Dumbledore’s past is confusingly hinted at, never explained.
And though the epilogue was obviously going to be a misfire, it comes so quickly after the climax that there’s barely time to breathe before the big happy ending, which is mostly notable for containing some very odd hair and makeup effects. The overall result is a finale that isn’t exactly bad, but seems content to be merely good enough, making sure not to insult fans or make any dramatic alterations, but never seeming to put much effort into the proceedings. However, given the hugely positive response to the film, this tactic has apparently worked to great effect. Like too many films this summer, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” is just good enough to keep people leaving the theater satisfied, yet severely lacking in genuine inspiration or emotion.
Stars: ☆ ☆ 1/2