It may not have the detail of Lego Hogwarts, but pretty cool nonetheless: A life-size Lego X-Wing is unveiled in Times Square. “The model…has a wingspan of 44 feet and comes complete with R2-D2 and a full range of sound effects…[It] was made with 5,335,200 Lego bricks. That, according to Lego, makes it the largest model ever built, eclipsing the Lego robot at the Mall of America by some 2 million bricks.”
Physicists get ever closer to a Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak with a new, less-bulky metascreen that scatters nano-particles. “Moving forward, one of the key challenges for the researchers will be to use ‘mantle cloaking’ to hide an object from visible light.”
Not to overstate the case: This eighth and final film in the Potter series is a quality production, well-made and well-acted throughout, and it’s still a good deal better than Chris Columbus’ flat first two movies. But it just didn’t resonate with me. Even more than the last film, Hallows Part 2 is stuck with dramatizing some of the clunkiest plot elements in the entire series. (Jesus Harry, anyone? And how ’bout that goofy coda?) And by separating out the story into two movies, Hallows Pt. 2 is bereft of much of the connective tissue that makes the Potterverse so engaging. Honestly, if you told me when the book came out that I’d end up preferring the film about the camping half of Hallows, I never would have believed you.
What do I mean by connective tissue? Well, firstly, the killer app of the Harry Potter series, as Laura Miller argued back in the day, was always Hogwarts, and Book 7 sorely missed the rhythms of boarding school life that infused the first six tomes. That was always an obstacle these last two films would have to overcome, and I thought Part One actually did a good job of it. But, as it turns out, the emotional failsafe — especially for the films, where we’ve really seen these kids grow up — was the interactions among the Big Three. And, now that Hallows has been sliced in half, Harry, Ron, and Hermione really don’t have all that much to do with each other here in the back end.
Instead, we have — after a brief adventure in the vaults of Gringotts — the Siege of Hogwarts, which takes up most of the picture. And it’s all very impressive, with its psychic shields, stone soldiers, rampaging ogres and whatnot. But this is all action-fantasy spectacle, and — after Helms Deep, Minas Tirith, and various other besieged redoubts in recent cinema, not particularly engaging spectacle at that. (Also, I guess the idea here is the good guys are buying time for Harry to find the Ravenclaw diadem, but the way the story comes across, all this carnage seems beside the point anyway. Couldn’t all the loss of life have been averted if Snape just took Harry by the pensieve before the Big Battle?)
Speaking of ole Severus, the back half of the film is also burdened by its source material. To be honest, I’d forgotten about many of the things that aggravated me about Deathly Hallows the book, until the story unfolded here once again. I already mentioned the Aslanification of Harry, where he has to now sacrifice himself for Voldemort’s sins to be truly expunged from this world. (See also: Matrix: Revolutions.) Then there’s the conversations with ghosts and the heavenly train depot rendez-vous with Dumbledore (weirdly, also in the third Matrix.)
And then there’s the Snape story, which plays out mostly as expected, but still has the effect of totally cheapening the character of Harry’s real dad. (As it is here, Snape is the unrequited hero, and James Potter is just a bullying prat who happened to marry Lily.) Like I said, a lot of these plot developments seemed to be coming by the end of the series — Severus always seemed like he was deep undercover, and Harry’s lightning scar made sense as the seventh horcrux. But the execution in the book, and subsequently here in the movie, is clumsy.
One more small issue here: Along with Hogwarts itself and the Big Three, the third leg of the stool for the films has been its British Thespian Full Employment program. But, with the exception of Ralph Fiennes’ Serpenthead Voldemort and arguably Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, the amazing collection of talent in the bullpens here doesn’t get all that much to do either. Estimable actors like John Hurt and Jim Broadbent have only reaction shots, and even big moments like the death of David Thewlis’ Lupin and Natalia Tena’s Tonks are given short shrift. (FWIW, the only big new actorly add in this last installment is Ciaran Hinds as Alberforth Dumbedore, but he’s virtually unrecognizable underneath his Michael Gambon makeup.)
Again, not to be a total hater — This is a competently-made and even sleek production, and it’s hard to see how David Yates could’ve improved the situation given the constraints of the source material. But, there’s no riff as inspired here as Yates’ Brazilian reconception of the Ministry of Magic in the last film, nor any sequence as transporting as the animated origins of the Hallows we saw last November. Like the book series from whence it came, the last chapter of the Harry Potter films ends with a bit of a plunk.
A hardy veteran of Dumbledore’s army at this point — this is his third Potter film in a row after Order of the Phoenix and the Half-Blood Prince — Yates has taken the often-unwieldy wanderings of the first half of Hallows and fashioned a lean, tense, and gripping fugitive story out of them. Better yet, he’s brought a much more palpable sense of danger and darkness to the proceedings. When I read the book, I missed Hogwarts most of the time and wondered why our heroes had to spend so much time camping. Here, the lack of Hogwarts goes unnoticed, and it’s abundantly clear why Harry, Ron, and Hermione spend so much time on the lam — They’re totally under the gun…er, wand.
That may be the part that rankles some of the youngest viewers out there, or their parents — From the creepier-than-usual Warner Brothers card on, the gloom here is unrelenting, and almost sadistic. Hallows begins with a Great Eye — that of the Minster of Magic (Bill Nighy), who’s making a Churchillian attempt to rally the wizarding world against the encroaching forces of Voldemort. (Good luck with that.) The Dark Lord (Ralph Fiennes), meanwhile, is entertaining his Death Eater shock-troops with a banquet at the Malfoys — one punctuated by the torture and eventual murder of Hogwarts’ Professor of Muggle Studies. She dies pleading for clemency from her former colleague, Severus Snape. (Clearly, she was new to academe.)
The Big Three are no happier. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is packing up and hiding the Dursleys somewhere safe from harm — It’s gotten so bad that he’s even nostalgic about his old room under the stairs. Hermione (Emma Watson) has resorted to wiping her Muggle parents’ minds of her existence. And Ron (Rupert Grint)…well, ok, like his older brothers, Ron is still a bit of a goof (at least until his arm almost gets ripped off in a freak disapparating accident later on.) And this, Ron’s injury notwithstanding, is all before Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson) shows up at 4 Privet Drive with an army of returning cast members — or, as anyone who’s read the book knows, cannon fodder.
Granted, these supporting characters aren’t exactly Redshirts — we know most of them from the first six movies. Still, here is one of the situations where, to my mind, the movie rubs up against the limitations of the source material. There’s a line in Red Letter Media’s worthy evisceration of The Phantom Menace where the narrator makes the very valid point: “Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi should have been combined into one character named…Obi-Wan Kenobi.” The same goes for the Potterverse.
By here in Book 7, several thousand pages into the tale of young Mr. Potter, the story is now totally crufted over with narrative stuff. Dozens of characters are running around already, and yet Hallows seems to pile on more every time our heroes get in a jam. (For example, Harry gets a tip from an old journalist friend of Dumbledores, whom we’ve never met, to go visit an old historian friend of Dumbledore’s, whom we’ve never met. Couldn’t one of these just have been Jim Broadbent’s Slughorn, from Book Six?)
We’re equally overstuffed here with magical Maguffins — Seven horcruxes and three hallows, not to mention three gifts from Dumbledore and various other wonderful toys, like Harry’s watchful mirror, Hermione’s infinite knapsack, and a steady supply of Polyjuice Potion. With so many magical items in play, the ground rules get fuzzy, and the sense of danger takes a hit. (Then again, they’re fuzzy anyway — Where can and can’t House elfs go again? And why aren’t our team using that highly convenient Room of Requirement from Book 5 to solve all of their problems?)
Still, one definite bright side of having so many populating the Potterverse is that the series continues to be a welcome full-employment program for British thespians. Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans (as Xenophilius Lovegood, Luna’s dad) are the most prominent additions to the cast, but there are other fun faces joining the party this time, including David O’Hara (Braveheart) as Harry’s face in the Ministry, Guy Henry (Extras, Rome‘s Cassius) as Voldemort’s puppet minister, and Peter Mullan (Children of Men, Red Riding) as the Death Eater head of security.
On this front, the series is now an embarrassment of riches. When the likes of John Hurt and Miranda Richardson have all of fifteen seconds of screen time, and even the House elves are voiced by names like Simon McBurney (The Last King of Scotland, The Ghost Writer,) and Toby Jones (as Kreacher and Dobby respectively), you know you’ve got a heck of a cast on your ends. And the three kids have grown up to be no slouches in this department either. I can’t tell if they’re great actors, but they’re definitely very good at being Harry, Ron, and Hermione at this point.
So, in the end and despite its narrative over-packing, Deathly Hallows is an entertaining and scary ride with some very memorable setpieces. There’s an animated sequence late in the film that’s as beautiful and entrancing as anything we’ve seen in all seven movies thus far. And I was also fond of Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s assault on the Ministry, packed as it was sly allusions to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. (Note the big statue, the gaggle of hangers-on breezing by, and Mullan being a man consumed with paperwork.) There’s still a lot of camping here, sure, but at least this time it feels less like aimless meandering and more like an urgent necessity. Let’s hope Yates and co. can land this magical bird in as fun a fashion next July.
In the trailer bin of late:
Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the rest of Team Hogwarts (now with Bill Nighy in tow) are back for
one last two last hurrahs in the trailer for both parts of David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Hmm…I mean, I’ll go see ’em, but this trailer just makes both movies seem like a lot of running around with pained expressions. (And, not to get curmudgeonly up in here, but even speaking as someone who fired up The Leaky Cauldron back in the day, “The Motion Picture Event of a Generation” is overselling this production something fierce.)
Dropping yesterday evening during the MTV Movie Awards — Sign #159 that I’m getting old: I just could not care less about this show, and could only handle five minutes or so of teh full-on insipid last night before switching back to Game 2 — the first trailer for David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part I). Lots of tearful, shouting matches in the English countryside…yep, that’s the book I remember.
Part 6 of the Harry Potter saga starts in media res — so much so that it feels like Yates & co. have basically given up on the non-readers — with a trio of the Dark Lord’s Death Eaters openly attacking London Muggles in broad daylight. Yes, it’s gotten that bad. But the potential Chosen One (Daniel Radcliffe) has his mind on other matters at the moment — mainly, getting to know the cute waitress at the local station cafe once her shift ends. Alas for Harry, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) apparates into the scene and bigfoots that plan relatively quickly — Instead, he enlists young Potter in an scheme to entice former Prof. Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) back into the Hogwarts fold. (Slughorn is an inveterate namedropper, and thus susceptible to Harry’s influence. That being said, the dance of seduction here all seems a bit more unsavory when viewed rather than read.)
Anyway, soon Harry — and Slughorn — and the rest of the gang have all returned to Hogwarts (with the exception of those schoolboys in disgrace, the Weasley twins, who are now making a mint in Diagon Alley.) But the darkness all around has now seeped even into Fortress Dumbledore — students become bewitched, various assassination attempts go awry, and the scion of Slytherin in particular, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), seems to be under more strain than usual. Perhaps worse still for the gang, the trickle of teenage sensuality seen in Goblet and Order has swollen to a torrent, and Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) are now in the full hormone-fueled throes of adolescence. Honestly, after all the pregnant looks, strange urges, and attempted snoggings in the first hour, I half-expected Harry to whip out an ID named “McLovin'” and try to score some butterbeer.
The kids all acquit themselves well enough given the modicum of plot this time around. Still, with all due respect to the teens, the secret weapon of the Potterverse on film remains the long and growing list of distinguished British thespians on hand. From the starting cast (Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, David Bradley, Mark Williams and Julie Walters) to the later pick-ups (Michael Gambon, David Thewlis, Helen McCrory, Evanna Lynch), Half-Blood Prince is stocked to the gills with well-done character turns. The only person who noticeably stuck out as bad was Helena Bonham Carter — She’s wayyy over the top (again) and may be refining her Queen of Hearts here. (I also would’ve liked to have seen He Who Must Not Be Named at some point over the film, but I suspect he’ll be back for the next two installments.)
That being said, the best thing about Half-Blood Prince is probably Jim Broadbent’s turn as Slughorn. At first, he just seemed to be doing a slightly toned-down variation of his “snip, snip, slice, slice” cameo in Brazil. But Broadbent manages to infuse the character with a melancholy I never took away from his more glad-handing, Falstaffian persona in the book. This should’ve been the “Half-Blood Prince’s” movie, really (or Dumbledore’s, for that matter) — but, particularly given the notable absence of the high adventure or puzzle-solving plot dynamics of earlier Potter tales, it’s Broadbent’s haunted sense of regret here that leaves a mark after the credits roll.