Harry Potter: Hail and Farewell to a Hallowed Franchise

The blockbuster series reaches its climax in a solid, satisfying final film

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A scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

“It’s very impressive, isn’t it?” observes moony Luna Lovegood, the hippie Hogwarts student, in the early moments of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. It is indeed impressive; and we mean not just this solid, satisfying final film — in which the Potter saga reaches its climax, if not quite its emotional apex — but the entirety of producer David Heyman’s blockbuster franchise. One imagines future generations will watch it, in its nearly 18-hour expanse, as one sprawling, enthralling story. “Please, Mom and Dad, can we see just one more episode? It’s only 3 a.m.”

An eight-part fantasy epic with a dead-serious tone — and the unusual goal in these facetious movie days of being iconic, not ironic — the Harry Potter films of course had the benefit of a bedrock constituency: the tens of millions of worldwide fans of J.K. Rowling’s wizardly septology. But the filmmakers could have failed their source material, as the would-be alchemists of countless other books for young readers have before them. Instead, they saw their roles as caretakers of a sacred text, transferring Rowling’s young hero and his ageless benefactors and adversaries to the screen with a kind of buoyant reverence that often stirred the spirit and never dropped the Quidditch ball.

(See pictures of Harry Potter cast members through the years.)

Ah, Quidditch. Remember the innocence of those early films, when the plot could pirouette on who would win the end-of-term match of airborne racquetball? As a decade passed between the publication of Rowling’s first Harry Potter volume, in 1997, and its conclusion in 2007, so with the films. The three leads have spent fully half their lives inside the skins and souls of their characters. We’ve seen Daniel Radcliffe (Harry) sprout chest hair, Emma Watson (Hermione) cleavage and Rupert Grint (Ron) a foot or so in height. The franchise’s core audience has grown up with them, making it hard to recall that, back in 2001 when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s [Philosopher's] Stone made its debut, many skeptics doubted that kids could sit through a 2½-hour movie without a bathroom break. Who knew that narrative rapture could overcome bladder imperatives?

And who predicted, back then, that the series — which had a laborious birth under Chris Columbus’ directorial midwifing of the first two episodes — would grow in cinematic stature under three other directors and become a cohesive long-form work that nearly rivals Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in expertise, intensity and grandeur? Credit screenwriter Steve Kloves, who wrote every script but that of Order of the Phoenix, with judicious pruning and a knowledge of the epic’s internal pressure points, and the technical crew headed by production designer Stuart Craig for visualizing the landscape of Hogwarts and beyond with such lavish, meticulous creativity. Kids who’ve grown up with these movies will be forever spoiled, assuming that all fantasies should look Harry Potter–rich.

Those in charge of wrapping up the story — Kloves again as writer and David Yates in his fourth term as director — assume that everyone knows everything that has happened up to this moment. Thus DH2 begins with the final images from DH1: of the malefic Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) stealing the Elder Wand from the crypt of Hogwarts’ late Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and of the sepulchral Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), Dumbledore’s killer, brooding in his dark aerie. For the few who haven’t memorized every aspect of Potter lore, we will say that the Deathly Hallows are three talismans that can lead their carrier to victory: the Elder Wand, a super-invisibility cloak and a Resurrection Stone that secures communication with the dead.

Too much of the last episode allowed Harry, Ron and Hermione to meander in the tracking down of other relics, known as Horcruxes, that turned DH1 into an exhausting version of Western Quest. Finally, the series has to ignore side trips, whole chapters of Rowling exposition and flashbacks — deepest regrets to the sad story of the young Dumbledore siblings; we miss you — to concentrate on the battle between 17-year-old Harry and the towering, snake-faced villain who killed his parents and threatens to rule the wizarding world.

DH2 is, essentially, a war movie, a prolonged siege of Hogwarts, a children’s crusade against the Dark Lord and his overwhelming forces. The martial damage wreaked on the school is reminiscent of a blitzed London, a cratered Munich, in World War II — a good-vs.-evil face-off that Rowling surely had in mind as clearly if not as immediately as J.R.R. Tolkien did when he sent the Fellowship of the Ring trudging toward Mount Doom. It is a war for which Harry feels desperately underarmed, physically and intellectually. As he asks Hermione, “When have any of our plans actually worked? We plan, we get there, all hell breaks loose.”

The battle scenes are finely etched and boldly presented; yet the heart of DH2, as in the earlier films, is found in more intimate exchanges involving the amazing cadre of British acting royalty enlisted for the enterprise. You see this in the first scenes, as Harry interrogates the goblin Griphook and the wand merchant Ollivander, momentarily his prisoners. Griphook (Warwick Davis, who also plays Professor Filius Flitwick) is immaculately coiffed, with long, mud-colored fingernails, and endures the grilling with the imperial balkiness of a king kidnapped from a small kingdom and treated without due respect in a larger one. His agreement to help Harry, Ron and Hermione sneak into the innermost vault of Gringotts Bank is presented as a negotiation of weight and delicacy. As Ollivander, who must reveal the import of two wands in Harry’s possession, John Hurt lends portentous weight and a sad charm to every syllable. It’s a marvelous cameo performance, out-wonderfulled only by Gambon’s grave majesty and Rickman’s slow, pearly elocution and his depiction of Snape’s emergence from a crusty shell into another sort of majesty.

The bank heist, beginning in the cool marble of the Gringotts counting room, is splendidly realized. Hermione must pretend to be the mean matron Bellatrix Lestrange; and Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Bellatrix, has fun impersonating Watson impersonating her. Inside the vault (after a Temple of Doom–style roller-coaster ride that briefly breaks the Potter tone), the interlopers find that every cup they touch multiplies ad infinitum, until the room is clogged to the ceiling with a Vatican’s worth of precious metals. How are our heroes to escape, once Griphook sneaks out and armed guards approach? On the back of the vault’s truculent sentry, a huge dragon, which clambers through underground passages to emerge in the counting room with the kids hanging on. The film allows the dragon its own precious character moment: crashing through the Gringotts cupola, the great creature pauses for a second to savor its freedom before flapping its torn papier-mâché wings, soaring low and kicking a few chimney tops into rubble, then ascending to lift its passenger-saviors into the sky. This thrilling sequence is an apt metaphor for the entire film series: at first a bit clumsy in transferring Rowling’s vision into movies, then gaining strength, finding its wing power and soaring in later episodes.

(See pictures of fantastical Harry Potter fans.)

Many critics have defined the books as a story of love after death: Harry for his parents, Harry for Dumbledore, even a certain serpentine teacher for a young woman whose ardent memory he will spend his life cherishing and protecting. But the books and the films also deal with a matter close to the young: Which adults can I trust? Who deserves my loyalty and obedience? We know from earlier episodes that Voldemort is simply evil, Dumbledore complicatedly wise and good. In the finale, we see, in sudden clarity, the murky motives of another father figure. The change provides the film’s most throbbing revelation: a bereft wizard holding the lifeless body of his beloved, as, behind this plangent Pietà, a 1-year-old child sobs. The scene gives evidence that, of the story’s several heroes, Harry has not sacrificed the most.

Though something like 94% of the people about to see DH2 must know the fate of Harry, his steadfast friends and his purported enemies, I am tiptoeing and sidestepping as I describe certain scenes. That’s because, like any child wanting to know what happens next in a story at bedtime, I want to know at the right time and wouldn’t care to spoil the suspense for the uninitiated. I consumed Rowling’s first three volumes in a ravenous week or so back in the summer of 1999 yet held off reading the conclusion of Deathly Hallows until last fall, after I’d reviewed the first half-movie made from it. At the end, I confess, I felt like Rowling, who said about finishing her monument of writing, “I never dreamed I could feel simultaneously heartbroken and euphoric.” For me, the end was just as powerful, transporting and sad.

(Watch TIME’s video “10 Questions for Daniel Radcliffe.”)

Readers who responded as fully I did to the book are unlikely to feel the same convulsive emotions watching the end of DH2. For one thing, they’ve already been there; the movie cannot be more than a zealous approximation of Rowling’s achievement, a fair copy of a rapturous literary experience. Yet Yates and his team offer enough visual epiphanies — Snape’s inky shape as he flies through a closed window, a ravaging fire that assumes the shape of Voldemort’s pet snake Nagini, the lovely, ethereal gravity of Helena the Grey Lady (Kelly Macdonald), the white tears shed by a dying teacher — to bring the pages alive onscreen.
The sublime supporting cast, brought back if only for glimpses here, remind us that the series is a luscious, perhaps unparalleled showcase for this generation’s most endearing British actors. And the children, now adults, in the main roles have matured ably along with their characters.

On both sides of the camera, all have performed inventively and honorably, faithful servants to the wizard in chief, Joanne Rowling. And now we must say goodbye to this world, like a summer camp we attended from childhood through adolescence and can return to only in memory — or, someday, with our children on DVD. Hail and farewell, Harry Potter films. You strove to do good and did better. In the wizarding world and the epic-movie universe, all is well.

See TIME’s Harry Potter archive.

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