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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1



Harry Pitches A Tent

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 begins the final chapter of the world's most beloved wizarding saga and aims to deliver the grandest Harry Potter movie adventure of all. It's certainly the longest. At two and a half stately-paced hours, this Hagrid-sized film epic is full to the Sorting Hat's brim with beloved and not-so-beloved characters making (in some cases their final) appearances, deepening mysteries, and debuting characters previously mentioned in the prior chapters. There are new revelations, tragic deaths, and there is camping.  Lots and lots of camping. 

Following the tragic events of the previous entry, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Professor Dumbledore has died at the hands of Severus Snape, who was working for Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters (or so it seems). Before his demise, Dumbledore charged Harry with the task for finding and destroying the missing Horcruxes, the keys to the ultimate defeat of Lord Voldemort.  Harry doesn't quite get around to his quest until after the first thirty minutes or so. To his credit, he tries to get going with his job sooner, but Ron talks Harry back to hang around and watch his brother Bill get married to Fleur Delacour. 

Up until the Death Eaters attack the Weasleys' wedding reception, The Death Hallows, Part 1 is basically one giant cameo-a-thon. So many recurring characters pop up, you'd need a Ph.D in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter just to keep everyone straight. The first welcome cameo is by Bill Nighy as the new Minister of Magic. He gets a couple of scenes before dying off screen. Then let's see, all of the Weasleys appear, Mad-Eye Moody, Fleur Delacour, Professor Lupin, What's Her Name, the black guy with the fez hat, and maybe there were others... it was actually easier to keep track of them all when most of them drank Poly Juice Potion and all ended up looking identical to Harry. They're all present to provide callbacks to the previous films (interrupting Harry's private bittersweet callbacks of watching the Dursleys hit the bricks and then remembering all the good times when he lived in the cupboard under the stairs) and then protect Harry from an aerial attack by the Death Eaters. 

Before they burst from the clouds on their broomsticks like a bunch of screaming banshees, the Death Eaters held an exclusive pow wow at Lucius Malfoy's house.  Lord Voldemort is (always) the guest of honor. Also in attendance were all of the Malfoys, Snape, Wormtail, Bellatrix Lestrange, Count Chocula, Mr. Burns, Rainier Wolfcastle, Sideshow Bob, and Ernst Stavro Blofeld. A Death Eater corporate retreat is actually far, far worse than the ones held by SPECTRE in the old James Bond movies. They kill someone at both meetings, but at least at the SPECTRE meetings no one has to sit around and watch Nagiri the python eat the corpse on the boardroom table. Even though the forces of evil are winning, morale in the Death Eaters is low, and one can easily see why. Their boss is a snake-faced psychopath - what exactly do they have to look forward to if Voldemort conquers the world?

When the Weasley-Delacour wedding reception is attacked by the Black Smoke (Death Eaters always like to burst from the clouds like the Smoke Monster on Lost, only without the clanking sound effects), Harry, Ron and Hermione escape to downtown London and are pretty much on their own for the whole rest of the movie. It's clear immediately that they have no idea what to do. This is a bummer and surprising. After all, Dumbledore died at the end of the prior school year. They had all summer to come up with a plan of action to locate and destroy the Horcruxes, but no, they've got nothing. At least Hermione thought ahead: she came prepared with a magical bottomless bag containing the equivalent of three of Batman's utility belts. Dumbledore also bequeathed Harry, Ron, and Hermione each something from his Will, but the most important item, the Sword of Godric Griffyndor, is missing. Why not go look for that?  No, the three young Wizards don't have any idea where to look for the Sword anymore than they do the Horcruxes.

It was delightful, however, to see Harry, Ron and Hermione roaming the streets of London. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the movie that established that the Harry Potter saga takes place in the modern world and that all of the kids are modern kids. Although unlike modern Muggle kids, Harry, Ron and Hermione don't have laptops, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and aren't texting each other every damn second.  Modern kids also don't have to constantly duck, run and hide from ugly blokes on broomsticks blasting them with wands. 

After a couple of ugly blokes try to blast them with wands, the Wizarding firm of H, R & H hide out in the dusty old house of the late, lamented Sirius Black, Harry's godfather. Re-introduced into the Harry Potter movies are Kreacher and Dobby the House Elves, both reminders of the more innocent years of when Harry Potter was whimsical and aimed for fanciful children, instead of how bleak, grim and killy-kill-kill the Harry Potter saga has now become. Kreacher and Dobby are awkward presences now, with the kids much older and the world about to end, but on the other hand the CGI for the House Elves is far more convincing than in the prior films.

Probably the most entertaining sequence in Deathly Hallows, Part 1 involves Harry, Ron, and Hermione using Poly Juice Potion (again with the Poly Juice Potion!) to impersonate three employees of the Ministry of Magic so they can steal the locket, which is a Horcrux, of their evil former Headmaster Delores Umbridge. (Umbridge was last seen being carried away by a bunch of centaurs in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but I guess she's fine. One wonders what, er, favors, got her out of being stampeded by the centaurs she insulted as being inferior creatures.)  The size and scope of the Ministry of Magic set is awe-inspiring, and the sequence thrillingly invoked Luke Skywalker and Han Solo bungling into the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia.

There's a frightful excursion to Godric's Hollow, both the birthplace of Dumbledore and where Harry's parents James and Lily Potter died to save their son, wherein Harry and Hermione have a thrilling battle with Nagiri the snake.  Our Wizarding Super Friends also get attacked at the home of Luna Lovegood, and later are trapped in the home of Lucius Malfoy, where Bellatrix Lestrange slices and dices the word "Mudblood" into poor Hermione. Hermione isn't a cutter, but Bellatrix sure is. 

But mainly, Harry, Ron and Hermione go camping. For months on end, they pitch a tent and go camping, in the woods, by a lake, in the mountains. They don't do any of the fun things one does while camping like sing songs or go fishing; they just sit around morosely and complain about how they don't know what to do and why they can't destroy the one Horcrux they found.  Inexplicably, they each take turns wearing the Horcrux locket, which contains some ill-defined power like the One Ring in Lord of the Rings that drives the wearer mad. Harry yells at Ron, Ron yells at Hermione, Hermione yells at Harry - Hey dummies!  Stop wearing the stupid Horcrux locket!  Put it in your pockets, or better yet, in Hermione's bottomless bag and stay away from it! 

Really, I expect better logic from Hermione, who got the biggest laugh in the movie when she proudly explains to Harry why her logic makes her so damn smart. (Also, loveable.) Second biggest laugh in the movie - and this is a movie where there is precious little laughter to be had - was the awkward shout out to Twilight when Ron interrupted Hermione telling the story of the Three Brothers (excellently animated) from The Tales of Beedle the Bard: "Midnight. My mum always says midnight. But Twilight's just as good!" What an olive branch to the Stephanie Meyer and her legion of Twi-hards. Let the two tween fandoms join as one in Harry's tent under the stars!

Eventually, Ron gets sick of all the camping and bolts in a fit of imagined jealousy over the closeness of Harry and Hermione. With Ron out of the way, The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 toys a bit with the sexual tension between Harry and Hermione. For a minute, Harry stops pouting and it occurs to him he's stuck in a tent with the most beautiful Mudblood in Britain. The film introduces a brand new moment where Harry and Hermione dance together sweetly to break the tension and sorrow in their tent. But they don't kiss, no, no. Their hearts are both promised to Weasleys and the movie wouldn't dare violate what JK Rowling has laid down as inviolate law in her books. However, when Ron does return and helps Harry find the Sword of Griffyndor, the Horcrux locket conjures a thoroughly questionable illusion of Harry and Hermione naked and embracing. Wait, showing Ron a vision of the girl he loves about to hump his best friend was supposed to stop Ron from attacking the Horcrux how? (Maybe the Horcrux thought Ron would stab Harry with the sword instead. Seems to me the Horcrux was making a lot of assumptions.)

Very late in the movie, the Horcruxes, which are the main things that concern H, R & H for the entire movie, take a back seat when Luna Lovegood's father introduces the existence of the Deathly Hallows, three legendary magical objects that combined together can kill Voldemort, I think. The Deathly Hallows are the Elder Wand, the most powerful wand ever made, which was buried with Dumbledore but Voldemort recovers after he exhumes his ex-headmaster's rather well-preserved corpse in the final scene, a stone that could be the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone (depending on which side of the Pond you're from), and the Invisibility Cloak that's been in Harry's possession since the first movie. Wait, do they need the Horcruxes at all now? Will the Deathly Hallows be enough to kill Voldemort? (I only read the book once the weekend it came out so I've honestly forgotten.)

There is no traditional three act movie structure to speak of in The Deathly Hallows, Part 1. Screenwriter Steve Kloves essentially ripped JK Rowling's novel in half and wrote the script for Part 1, choosing the death of Dobby the House Elf as the end point.  The movie doesn't build to Dobby's death, the movie just stops there.  Maddeningly, the demise of Dobby is given more weight and impact than the death of Dumbledore in Half-Blood Prince! Dumbledore just falls to his death and is met with silence from a school-full of shocked zombies barely emoting. (What an infuriating cheat of the audience that the movies never show us the magnificent funeral for Dumbledore as described in the novel.)  Dobby the fucking House Elf dies with famous last words in a tearful Harry's arms, compete with Harry personally digging his grave and burying him. (If I wrote the script, Dobby dies, followed by Harry suddenly blurting out, "Well, who wants House Elf for dinner?")

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is carried entirely by the considerable charm of its three leads, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. Many of the venerable adult actors such as Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter and John Hurt make their usual welcome contributions, but they're completely background players in Deathly Hallows, Part 1.  Even their Hogwarts classmates are mere walk-ons; this is the first Harry Potter movie where we spend no time whatsoever at the beloved Hogwarts school. We do find out via radio broadcast Snape is suddenly Headmaster. This movie is all about Hermione, Ron, and Harry, and even moreso about Harry and Hermione, who are in nearly every scene together. Any deficiencies they may still have as actors are nullified by how Radcliffe, Watson and Grint inhabit these characters inside and out. They live these characters, they are Harry, Ron, and Hermione. 

The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is the most ambitiously filmed Harry Potter movie, featuring stunning location shooting all over the United Kingdom. But what the movie lacks is ebb and flow. Speaking in the Queen's English, The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 lacks zip, zazz, zowie. Every now and then there's a kapow!, but not nearly often enough. The memorable sequences of action and interest are welcome interruptions to the constant, interminable stretches where not a lot happens besides good looking, dour young Brits camping.

Director David Yates was chosen by the producers as the steward of the final four Harry Potter films and, as with his previous efforts, Yates has continued to deliver an enjoyable but underwhelming live action rendering of Rowling's story. (Not to say Rowling's seventh book doesn't have inherent problems, like, say, the first 400+ pages.) Yates benefits from attractive, appealing young leads, magnificent supporting actors, wondrous locations, and the finest visual effects money can buy. And yet, The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is the latest of his Harry Potter films to revel in the gathering storm of darkness while simultaneously lacking the wonder and joie de vivre of the novels. If we didn't already like the three lead actors, if we didn't already have an investment of boundless good will towards the Harry Potter saga, would anyone sit through this grim marathon of drudgery?

At this point, it's a no-brainer audiences who have spent the last decade loving Harry Potter will return for the second half of The Deathly Hallows. Much like the magical Room of Requirement in Hogwarts, the movie theaters showing The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 will be in and of themselves rooms of requirement.  It is my fondest wish that in the action-packed ultimate confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, with the lives of the entire Wizarding world at stake, director Yates has saved his grandest trick for last and gives the Harry Potter movie saga the truly magical ending it and we deserve.