In a classic storybook finish, however, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2" turns out to be more than the last of its kind. Almost magically, it ends up being one of the best of the series as well.
The Harry Potter films, like the boy wizard himself, have had their creative ups and downs, so it's especially satisfying that this final film, ungainly title and all, has been worth the wait. Though no expense has been spared in its production, it succeeds because it brings us back to the combination of magic, adventure and emotion that created the books' popularity in the first place.
It also succeeds because the franchise has stuck to its conservative creative guns and seen them pay off. With occasional exceptions like Alfonso Cuarón's "Prisoner of Azkaban" adventure, the Potter films have rarely been daring, valuing superb craftsmanship and care over cutting-edge audacity. Now that we've come to the much-anticipated finale, that expert husbanding of a once-in-a-lifetime franchise has had a cumulative effect that is not to be denied.
Not only did the series' three leads — Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson — turn out to be expertly cast, the production has been able to retain their services through all eight films. And they've been supported by such a deep bench of top-flight British acting talent (Ciarán Hinds is the latest to be added, playing Dumbledore's brother) that when Bill Nighy joined the cast for "Deathly Hallows — Part 1," he said he'd feared he'd be the only English actor of a certain age who wasn't in a Harry Potter film.
All that talent couldn't have come cheap, and the other consistent factor in the Potter universe is the production's refusal to skimp or pinch pennies. That willingness to do whatever it took to bring Stuart Craig's exceptional production designs to life no matter how painstaking the task is central to the new film's success as well.
To give just two examples, more than 200,000 golden coins and thousands of other pieces were created to convincingly fill a vault at Gringotts bank, and so much furniture and objects were bought to make Hogwarts' enormous Room of Requirement look more crowded than Charles Foster Kane's storehouse that the set dressing department was busy for months buying up bric-a-brac. Nothing's too good for our Harry.
"Deathly Hallows — Part 2" also benefits from sticking with experienced and capable people at the top. Screenwriter Steve Kloves has scripted seven of the eight Potter films, and David Yates has directed four of them. All this practice has allowed the creative team, including returning cinematographer Eduardo Serra, to relax into its best self without having to learn the territory all over again.
Splitting the final Potter volume into two films was also to the advantage of Part 2, as was the fact that this film deals only with roughly the final third of the book. This enables it to avoid the tiresome teen angst that hampered Part 1 and devote almost all its time to action and confrontation, starting with the film's initial image of the dread Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) pointing the all-powerful Elder Wand to the sky and creating ... the Warner Bros. logo.
Once this bit of business is out of the way, the plot kicks in with a vengeance, as Harry, looking a bit like a commanding boy Trotsky in his round glasses, worries about Voldemort's possession of that wand (one of the three Deathly Hallows of the title) and plots to discover the whereabouts of the Horcruxes that contain hidden pieces of Voldemort's soul. Destroy them all and the man will ultimately be destroyed.
One of the pleasures of "Hallows — Part 2" is to see how the film's production team has expanded on relatively brief passages in the book and turned them into satisfying visual splendors. One of the best comes almost at once, with Potter and friends penetrating deep below the earth on a twisting and turning journey to see what's inside the Gringotts' vault belonging to Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). Just as good is a wild and crazy magical blaze that engulfs that Room of Requirement when a Fiendfyre spell gets out of hand.
Both of these sequences profit from the fact that "Deathly Hallows — Part 2" is the only Potter film to be available entirely in 3-D. While that extra dimension is a distraction that needs getting used to in the film's dialogue sequences, it is effective when the action is hot and heavy.
This production is also especially good at expertly building tension around situations (like the long-awaited Potter-Voldemort showdown) that anyone who knows the books knows the outcome of. Another satisfaction, and the key to creating emotion, is the kind of strong acting that the end of a story often calls forth. Though many do well (including an especially effective John Hurt as wand maker Ollivander), it is Alan Rickman as the elusive Severus Snape who, as always, makes the most lasting impression.
Yet when Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) speaks from beyond the grave near the film's end and says "words are our most inexhaustible source of magic," it is Potter creator J.K. Rowling who comes immediately to mind. First and foremost, it is her we have to be grateful to for all these pleasures, and finally, satisfyingly, we most definitely are.
'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence and frightening images
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: In general release