No matter how successful Harry Potter gets, it’s somehow impossible to hate him. In the 10 years since the eight-part franchise began, the Potter films have raked in global profits on a scale that should, by rights, be annoying in and of itself. And, as a non-reader of the J.K. Rowling books (I’m saving them to read with my daughter when she’s old enough) and a non-aficionado of the fantasy genre, I find at least some stretch of every Harry Potter film arcane and a bit dull (usually the parts involving magician-vs.-magician battles—more on that later). Yet the knowledge that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (Warner Bros.) will be the last in the series—that Harry Potter, book or movie, is now a story that has been thoroughly and finally told—fills me with a strangely nostalgic sense of loss, like attending a graduation that’s also a funeral. (Disclaimer: The preceding sentence was an analogy, not a plot description.)
Maybe this mysteriously ineradicable Potter goodwill comes from my sense that Harry Potter as a phenomenon is so self-evidently a force for good in the world. Children excited about reading! A bunch of books about—this warms the cockles of any education-loving heart—a school! A school in which kids learn to be smart and brave and honest so they can use their magical powers to fight intolerance and evil! The Potter films have managed to explore hopelessly square human truths—about pedagogy and mentorship, loyalty and betrayal, adolescent rivalry and puppy love—without ever seeming goody-two-shoes about it. Some of the installments may be static, others overlong, but there’s an essential integrity to the Harry Potter series, stemming no doubt from Rowling’s close association with the production process throughout. The films don’t feel like cynical cash-cow milking sessions but like chapters in an unfolding story, each one (especially the last four in the series, directed by David Yates) establishing the necessary framework for the next.
At the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (Rowling’s 759-page final installment had to be broken up into two movies), Lord Voldemort (a digitally disfigured Ralph Fiennes) had just plundered the grave of Harry’s beloved teacher, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), for an ultra-valuable wand reputed to bring absolute power to whoever possesses it. Against the advice of the wise old wand-maker Ollivander (John Hurt), Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) set out to kill Voldemort, which they can only do by finding and destroying the four remaining Horcruxes (a series of antique gewgaws in which the Dark Lord has embedded bits of his soul—essentially, wizard-speak for “MacGuffins”).
In search of these metaphysically charged trinkets, the three Hogwarts alums must break into a subterranean bank vault guarded by a pitiably abused fire-breathing dragon; consult with a tower-dwelling ghost (a memorably eerie Kelly McDonald) about the location of her mother’s magic diadem; hunt Voldemort’s pet serpent with a tooth from a basilisk skeleton; and—you get the picture. These kids have a magic to-do list a mile long.
But you don’t need to grasp the significance of every enchanted artifact in order to submit to the enchantment of this movie. The magic is in the details, like the masterful production design by Stuart Craig, who’s been with the series since the beginning and has by now created a densely imagined universe in which, for example, paintings on a wall double as doorways into other dimensions. Similarly, the special effects in Harry Potter aren’t just there to look neat; they serve as glimpses into a fully fleshed-out alternate reality with its own history, logic, and laws.
About those magic battles. This has been a problem throughout the series, and is perhaps an inevitable loss in the translation from page to screen: Watching two wizards square off via wand is just not much fun. In this movie’s climactic scene, as Harry and Voldemort face off amid the rubble of war-torn Hogwarts, there are not one but two long moments in which we see Harry’s powers, represented by a greenish bolt of light, do battle with Voldemort’s, a yellowish bolt. It’s zigzag vs. zigzag, with no visible strategy or skill—not the most riveting of visuals for an action sequence in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance. (Having seen the film at a 2-D screening, I can’t speak to how the use of 3-D adds to or subtracts from zigzag boredom.)
One character whose previous appearances in the films have been tantalizingly brief, Helena Bonham Carter’s sexy-Goth-madwoman Bellatrix Lestrange, gets a moment worth remarking in this chapter. Hermione, using a disguise spell, takes on Bellatrix’s form to gain access to her bank vault; what we see is Bonham Carter’s body with Watson’s voice. Bonham Carter playing wicked Bellatrix as (badly) impersonated by upright Hermione is a wonderful piece of actorly sleight-of-hand; I almost believed I was looking at a digitally altered Emma Watson. As the ominous Hogwarts headmaster Severus Snape, Alan Rickman swirls his lines around his mouth as if he were about to spit them into a bucket. He’s marvelous, as are all the British character actors—Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, Jim Broadbent, David Thewlis—who pop up to reprise characters from earlier films, sometimes without speaking more than a line or two.
Across its whole sweep—which in retrospect now does seem genuinely epic—the Harry Potter series offers one ravishing special effect no digital compositor or makeup artist can match: the opportunity to see the three leads, Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint, age from adorably buck-toothed 11-year-olds into young men and women toward whom the audience now feels an oddly avuncular pride. (This slide show tracks the kids’ growth process from film to film.) I don’t know if any of these actors will be able to escape the long shadow of Harry Potter—though the gimlet-eyed Watson strikes me as the most likely to go on to a long and varied career—but even if the Harry Potter series is all they do, they will have created an impressive and lasting body of work. I’ll probably revisit the Potter films after reading the books with my child one day, and see things in them I can’t now. It’s always hard to predict how a work of art will age over time, but I have the feeling that, like its three young leads, the Harry Potter series will turn out just fine.