Chicago Tribune Michael Phillips
FILM REVIEW: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2
By Michael Phillips
Tribune Newspapers Critic
3 1/2 stars
It has taken Harry Potter eight full-length films to really have it out with Lord Voldemort, the reptilian prince of darkness with the undeniable leadership qualities and a clear, can-do game plan. With an ordinary franchise, the audience -- even an audience pre-devoted to J.K. Rowling's books -- would've grown itchy long ago, renouncing its allegiance and moving on.
But this is no ordinary franchise. As the 21st century has lurched, in the Muggle world, from terrorism to pervasive, politically exploitable paranoia to a world economy built on diminished expectations and the sales of Stieg Larsson books, the globally popular Potter movies ($5.4 billion in gross receipts, not counting the eighth and last) set in Rowling's wizarding universe dramatized an increasingly threatened and threatening place, not so different from our own.
For Harry and his dear, smitten schoolmates, Ron and Hermione, mere survival presents the goal in the apocalyptic and very fine series finale, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2." The key to the franchise's sustainability? The opposite of mere survival. After getting the two Chris Columbus-directed Potters out of the way, the series grew more idiosyncratic and unapologetic about what it was doing and how it would go about doing it.
It's foolish to say each film topped the previous one. Depending on the director, and on how compliant or resistant Rowling's individual books were to cinematic distillation, the Potter movies have ebbed and flowed and peaked and valleyed a little. Last year's "Deathly Hallows -- Part 1" did the job, for example, but it felt like a set-up for this final picture, at 130 minutes the shortest of the eight.
Never, however, did producer David Heyman and company fall below a respectable level of craft. Never have the later films felt overly nervous about attracting new audiences to Hogwarts and environs. Never has the Potter cinematic world lost sight of the friendships and riddles and adolescent rites of passage that make Harry a relatable Chosen One.
The Potter movies are big. But because Rowling, Heyman and company got the casting so wonderfully right, right from the start, audiences knew they were in sure hands. This is why they kept coming back.
The first "Harry Potter" movie opened two months and five days after 9/11. All that first movie had to do was to show up and not stink and offer a welcome escape from the sight of the World Trade Center collapsing, over and over again. In "Deathly Hallows 2" a major character transforms into ash, floating in a gray, smudgy sky. It is an image inspired by and unthinkable without 9/11. The Potter movies, which are now more profitable than either the James Bond franchise or the "Star Wars" features, helped us channel our 21st century anxieties and escape into a world at once more and less scary than ours. Even when he suffered the torments of his own "Look Back in Anger" psyche, Harry never acted like a jerk. He has manners. This cannot be undervalued.
In the new film, Harry is still hunting Horcruxes, which contain trace amounts of Voldemort's soul. The so-called Elder Wand, stolen from the crypt of Harry's mentor Dumbledore, must be put into the right hands. Snape, the private school administrator voted most likely to connive, has taken over Hogwarts and overseen its transformation to a regimented awful place. Yet Snape's elusive role in the fate of Hogwarts, and in the grim battle between Harry and Voldemort, remains one of the film's real strengths. So is Alan Rickman, whose way with the dark art of the sinister ... even arguably ... ridiculous ... pauses continues to astonish.
In "Deathly Hallows: Part 1" Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron) had plenty of time to act, and fuss and tramp around forbidding landscapes. Here in "Deathly Hallows: Part 2," it's virtually non-stop action, though director David Yates, who has taken good care of these final four, ever-meaner Potter adventures, does a very crafty thing, following adapter Steve Kloves' screenplay. "Deathly Hallows: Part 2" doesn't come flying out of the gate, throwing computer-generated Death Eaters at your face. (I saw it in 2-D, so the in-my-face bits were less in my face, anyway.) Part 2 begins, gravely, with Radcliffe's tense encounters with John Hurt (as Ollivander, the wandmaker) and Warwick Davis (as the sphinxlike goblin Griphook, with wee pointy teeth). These are conversations, not just exposition chunks, and they instantly remind audiences that while "Deathly Hallows: Part 2" will kill off various characters, some of them in startling and violent ways, it will also require a bit of actual, old-school listening.
Harry never seems to have a straightforward conversation with any adults in his quest. He never really knows where he stands with anyone, or where he's going. And there's another explanation for the series' appeal: He may be the Chosen One, but he's doing what all kids must learn to do: navigate an incomprehensible adult world. In other words he's an ordinary extraordinary kid.
Director Yates does not offer the sort of dark panache Alfonso Cuaron brought to number three, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," my favorite of the eight. But his touch is honorable and handsome and meticulous, even if he has a hard time activating the scenes of shell-shocked Hogwarts students under siege running around what's left of the halls. The new movie offers a superb dragon, the one guarding the vaults at Gringotts Bank, and when our young (well, not so young anymore) heroes and heroine ride the beast to safety the movie takes a moment to depict the dragon breathing, gratefully, the air above ground. It's a moment typical of both Rowling's inventiveness and empathy and of the films' degree of fidelity to Rowling -- smart but not slavish.
The new film concludes with an epilogue, already much discussed online, with key characters purportedly now in middle age. They look approximately 19 minutes older, rather than 19 years. At the screening I attended this provoked some laughter, some of it intentional and fond, some of it less so. Yet audiences can forgive just about anything in Potter's world by now. Rowling's books and the subsequent movies have given us the game of Quidditch, a host of glorious spells and the Invisibility Cloak, which makes a farewell appearance in "Deathly Hallows: Part 2," in the scene where Harry and company break into Bellatrix Lestrange's bank vault, looking for Horcruxes. (It's a highlight, and not only because of the dragon.) When Harry returns to the now-ravaged Hogwarts as a Dumbledore's Army revolutionary, he's heralded by the secret code phrase "lightning has struck."
This refers to the zigzag bolt on his forehead, where his Voldemort-marked story began. But it refers no less clearly to the Potter series' own power, profits and, not incidentally, quality. I can't imagine anyone who's come this far with these characters missing the goodbye.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sequences of intense action violence and frightening images).
Running time: 2:10.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter); Rupert Grint (Ron); Emma Watson (Hermione); Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange); Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort); Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore); Ciaran Hinds (Aberforth Dumbledore); Alan Rickman (Severus Snape); Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall).
Credits: Directed by David Yates; written by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling; produced by David Heyman, David Barron and Rowling. A Warner Bros. Pictures release.