A token amount of plot: When we last left Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley, they had just buried their slain companion Dobby the House Elf and were continuing on their quest to find the last remaining Horcruxes (if you don't know what a Horcrux is and why they must be destroyed, DO NOT see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II this weekend). One thing leads to another, and Harry Potter and his friends find themselves back at Hogwarts, where Voldemort has given the student body an ultimatum: deliver Harry Potter or everyone in the school dies. Needless to say, the school does not give in. The students and faculty scramble to protect the school from an entire army of Death Eaters, which will hopefully give Frodo the time he need to... err... I mean give Harry the time he needs to destroy the last remaining Horcruxes and thus finally take out Tom Riddle.
First of all, despite my whining that will come in later paragraphs, the film is a technical marvel and a generally exciting action-adventure. The finale, like the series, distinguishes itself amongst a sea of big-budget tent poles by emphasizing narrative and character over spectacle. When we think back to the favorite moments, it is not the action sequences but the character interaction that come to mind. We love the time spent with Harry, Hermione, Ron, Neville, Luna, Ginny, Draco, etc. We love the limited time we got to spend in the company of such dynamic actors as Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Robbie Coltrane, Jason Issacs, etc. And we get a sprinkling of such moments in this final chapter. But those moments are surprisingly few and far between, as the film so far out of its way to focus almost exclusively on Harry Potter vs. Voldemort that the rest of our beloved characters get the short shrift. Of course, one major supporting character gets his moment to shine (no spoilers, for the two of you who don't know), and it's easily the best, most emotionally devastating scene in the picture. If Warner is willing to spend the money, 'you know who' (no, not THAT 'you know who') could end up with his first Oscar nomination. But there are far too few such moments for the rest of the heroes and villains. Yes, the series has been Harry-centric since The Goblet of Fire, but again, this is the bloody series finale!
There are various crowd-pleasing moments in the final battle scenes (most of which are supplied by Neville Longbottom), and there are moments are shocking violence (children die onscreen, sometimes graphically). But most of the big Hogwarts battle basically takes place offscreen, as we follow Harry, Ron, and Hermione as they look for Horcruxes inside the castle. This may not be a fair comparison, but I was reminded of the finale of the first Transformers, where the Autobots and Decepticons engaged in a battle royal in downtown LA offscreen while the camera was focused on Jon Voight shooting bugs with a shotgun. We want to see more than just a few moments out of the corner of the screen of our stalwart Hogwarts heroes holding down the fort (and paying the ultimate price). The final battle is cleverly fleshed out into something more physical than merely two foes pointing wands at each other, although said battle is less emotionally engaging than you'd expect (I was frankly hoping for something resembling the weary fatalism of the Neo/Smith fight in The Matrix Revolutions). There is a semi-tracking shot as our three main heroes race through Hogwarts and we see the great battle unfolding before our eyes that is both wonderful and frustrating. It's a great, epic moment that nonetheless serves to remind us of all the glorious such moments that we didn't see because we were busy watching our main heroes try to stab a necklace. Yes, the series has always been more about character than action, but again, this is the bloody series finale!
When a major character cradles the dead body of another major character, the moment is so fleeting my wife (who hasn't read the book) couldn't tell which specific character had been killed. And when a major villain is killed onscreen in a most surprising manner by a most surprising hero (arguably the biggest crowd-pleasing moment in the book), it's edited so tightly that we can't tell who said hero was defending (again, my wife, who hadn't read the book, didn't know who was in peril). I understand the reluctance of the filmmakers to turn the film into a full-on Lord of the Rings-style war picture. But this is the series finale of a 19 hour saga... they've earned the right to tack another hour on and go a little crazy, especially when the source material is right in front of them. Considering how much good this truncated film still contains, I can only imagine that the three-hour cut would not only be the best film in the series (still the seventh film, natch) but one of the better fantasy films of our generation, something to stand tall beside The Empire Strikes Back and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.
But as it stands, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II is merely a very good film in the franchise, and a very good fantasy film in its own right. What is included in the film, especially in the last two acts, is certainly worth our attention and our praise. The acting is peerless throughout (Maggie Smith has several lovely grace notes), and there are indeed scenes of genuine power and tearjerking emotion (prepare to weep when Harry pulls out the 'ressurection stone' in a key moment). The actual onscreen action is generally gripping and impressively staged, and there is a brutal casualness to the violence (who lives and who dies is often random and arbitrary). The score by Alexandre Desplat is appropriately stirring, and he knows exactly when to bring out the John Williams themes for maximum effect (the first use of the main theme is so perfect I wanted to stand up and applaud). And like the book, the film concludes the saga with a narratively simple but symbolically profound epilogue, a stirring reminder of what Harry and his friends were fighting for. And unlike certain series finales (cough-Lost-cough), it does make the viewer grateful to have actually stuck it out and watched each successive installment.
Even while I carp about certain details of this final chapter, there are two things that must be stated (if you have the soundtrack, start playing the 'leaving Hogwarts' theme... NOW). First of all, quite simply, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II is still better than any fantasy picture released in the last ten years that isn't a Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars film (I love Revenge of the Sith... sue me). Second of all, one cannot ignore the momentous achievement that is the Harry Potter saga. Eight films, perfectly cast right from the start by director Chris Columbus (who really deserves an apology from quite a few of you) and with a consistency in construction and general quality that was, let's be honest, as much about luck as talent. Luck that all of its young would-be wizards stayed interested and became genuinely solid actors (and ahem... aged well to boot), luck that the adult cast had not a single defector or major change save for one untimely death (RIP Richard Harris), luck that Warner Bros had the good sense to rarely if ever interfere with the creative process, luck that audiences stayed with the series even as they got older, luck to the extent that any one good movie is partially about luck, let alone eight consecutive relative triumphs.
There will probably never be an ambitious undertaking like this again, certainly not in our 'do trilogy and reboot' era. The Harry Potter series is everything we say we want from our big budget filmmaking, and we write it off as 'pop-culture junkfood' at our peril. The highest compliment I can pay to the series is that, as a longform saga, it truly deserves to stand alongside Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. The highest compliment I can pay this film is that it falters mainly in comparison to our expectations (and our knowledge of the source material). It says a lot about the adventures of 'the boy who lived' that a film this good could still be 'disappointing'.
NOTE - For a look at the previous films, read the retrospectives of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. Plus the original reviews for 6 and 7.
NOTE II - I saw the film in IMAX 3D. As much as I love IMAX, the 3D does little more than darken the screen and make the picture feel less 'filmlike'. While the immersive IMAX screen may be worth the 3D trade-off, there is no real reason to see the film on a regular 3D screen. How I wish Warner Bros. would have just released the film in normal 2D.