Monday, November 22, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Does this remind anyone else of Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills"?
It's been a while since I've read a Harry Potter book. I've read them all, but in the intervening years, many of the plot details have faded from my memory. Maybe that's a good thing; when I'm too familiar with a story, I notice any variations acutely and also know every beat of the plot. For the seventh installment in the franchise, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, that was not an issue. I even completely forgot what a Deathly Hallow was, it's been so long. Isn't it a 70s punk band? Does that make this movie like a Scooby-Doo team-up episode (Harry and the Hallows take on Joker and the Penguin!)? Anyway, it was a nice change to know the gist of the story, but not feel the need to nit-pick every little change made. I have to wonder, though, if more familiarity would have actually helped with this film.

I'm going to make some basic assumptions about you, the reader right now. First off, you are familiar with the wizarding world of Harry Potter. You know that Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is a good wizard, and he must eventually battle the Bowser of the wizarding world, the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Harry is accompanied primarily by his friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and frequently aided by his school's headmaster (and Voldemort's only magical equal), Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon).

Now, here's a quick catch-up on the series. Unfortunately, Dumbledore was killed at the end of the last Harry Potter. Voldemort's bad guys are running the wizarding world through terror and murder, which are admittedly pretty non-magical ways to rule anybody; only Harry and his friends know how to stop Voldemort. Oh...you want to know, too? Well, Voldemort (let's call him Morty for short), in order to gain immortality, split his soul into six parts and hid them inside ordinary items. As long as one of these Horcruxes exists, so does Morty. The good news is that, through the events of earlier movies, two Horcruxes have already been destroyed. The bad news is that the other four could be anything, anywhere, and the longer it takes to find (and figure out how to destroy) these things, the more likely it is that Morty and his minions will kill Harry, removing the last viable threat from Morty's reign of terror.

This movie marks a distinct departure for Harry and his friends. Instead of going to Hogwart's and finishing their last year of wizarding school, they go on the lam. Morty's men are hunting them, and they need to lie low and run when they are found. That means that they stay outside of wizard communities and spend some time in London before ultimately settling on a series of desolate camping grounds scattered throughout England. As it turns out, without Dumbledore's help, these kids are pretty helpless. Like, you know, kids. They know that they need to find Horcruxes, but they only manage to find one for this entire movie. It takes them the entire movie to learn how to destroy it, too. Meanwhile, Morty spends his time searching for a special magic wand, one that will kill Harry. Things begin to fire on all cylinders when Harry and his friends get over their teenage attitudes and work together to solve their problems. Of course, that only gets you so far if you get captured by Morty's people...

The biggest difference between The Deathly Hallows and any of the preceding chapters is the tone. Gone is the sense of wonder at magic. That is replaced by a hopelessness that becomes the defining tone of the film. We're used to seeing Harry and his friends encounter a puzzle and solve it within two hours (even though those two hours encompass their entire school year). Seeing them stuck, with no promising leads, is surprising to see on the big screen; I liked this choice, because it actually makes their tasks seem suitably difficult for a lead-up to the inevitable big wizard fight. However, the movie can drag at points when nothing seems to be happening. It is at these moments, though, where we get to see how well these young actors have developed over the years. Director David Yates leaves a lot of moments as better shown than told, which is especially surprising in a family film (even if it is rated PG-13, this is a movie that young fans will grow into), a genre that usually leaves subtlety locked in the car with the window cracked. His confidence pays off pretty well; Emma Watson is still the class act of the bunch, but Daniel Radcliffe was pretty good and Rupert Grint looks like he might be a pretty good comedic actor at some point, even if he is so very, very ugly. This movie relies more on these three to carry the acting load than any other Potter film, with special effects and the always wonderful adult supporting cast making only occasional appearances.

The film is certainly not without fault. You can justly criticize this movie for having very little happen in its two-plus hours running time; actually, many things happen, but very little to advance the larger plot of Harry vs. Morty. I've also heard people complaining about an abrupt ending. It's not abrupt; the action leading up to the ending is sudden, when compared to the pace of the rest of the film, but the ending makes sense and I was okay with it.

What I didn't like about this film was the fact that it is clearly a set-up film. I actually enjoyed this movie --- it had action, humor, and several sad moments, even if it was slow --- and I think it did a fantastic job setting up The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, especially with the way it built up Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) as a prime villain. That doesn't make this a strong movie on its own, though. While I was okay with the ending, it isn't as strong or final as the other Potter endings; it definitely feels like a "switch to disc 2" moment. And that's too bad, because I think that, if they could have found a good stopping point, this could have been the awesome downer movie of the series; they are trying hard to be the wizard version of The Empire Strikes Back, where the heroes have had bad news all day, and are getting ready to attack those stupid Ewoks. It doesn't quite hit the same note of "we've taken their best shots, now it's our turn" feel, though. I also felt that this movie had scenes where you were just attacked by cameo appearances. Of the adults, only Bill Nighy and Ralph Fiennes had decent screen time, with Helena Bonham Carter, Toby Jones (as a voice) and Rhys Ifans also making good with their brief appearances. Alan Rickman, Jason Isaacs, Michael Gambon, Peter Mullan, Robbie Coltrane, Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis, John Hurt, Imedla Staunton, David O'Hara, and Warwick Davis were all just flashes on the screen. Sadly, most of these (for the most part) very respectable actors were limited to less that four lines and maybe one visible emotion. Even the other child actors, like Tom Felton, Clemence Poesy and Bonnie Wright were barely given any time to much of anything. This barrage of familiar faces and characters was sometimes distracting for me, as I searched my memory to identify certain characters or recall why someone was in the position they were in (I'm still not sure why the Malfoys were on Morty's bad side).

There was a lot that I really enjoyed, though. I really liked Ben Hibbon's dark and visually interesting animated tale that explained just what the hell a Deathly Hallow is. I liked the supporting cast, even when their input was limited. I thought the emotional scenes were handled better than in any previous Harry Potter, and that includes an extended sequence of watching them mourn an ugly CGI character, which could have been hilarious if it was handled poorly. And this movie did what it set out to do (set up the final film), and it did it well. Does this story need to be two movies long? After all, the last three movies were also based on enormous books. I don't know, but I guess we'll see when Part 2 comes out this summer. As it stands right now, though, I expect that this film (both parts together) will prove to be like any classic double album in rock; bloated and long-winded, and certainly with some moments that could have been left out, but it's the White Album, what are you gonna do?

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