Monday, July 11, 2011

From the Vault: Deathly Hallows Part 1

Here are my original reviews of all the movies in the Harry Potter series. My review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 will publish here Thursday.

After six cookie-cutter films about wizardry and its many perils, Harry Potter and Co. is giving a new kind of storyline a whirl. It’s a risky — though commendable — device to change up the formula this late in the game, but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 handles it with a degree of class, and also tedium.

The previous Potter films were full of that wide-eyed splendor that makes children’s fantasy films plucky and fun. They were just too frequently clones of the one that came before it, so much so that a watch could be set to all the plot elements: Harry catches a train, Harry gets the typical hazing at Hogwarts, Harry meets the new celebrity-cameo teacher, Harry learns a new magic spell and then has the common sense to recall that spell during the momentous finale in a dungeon/maze/forest/castle/cave. You could pretty much count on this formula like you could count on factual inaccuracies in a Sarah Palin tweet.

Certainly there are some of these elements in the new film, but J.K. Rowling also deviates very much from the formula she taxed to death in the six previous films/books. For starters, the Hogwarts school, so central to previous adventures, is never even seen. And all those pesky other students — who had to be given mandatory screen time in the other films — most of them have been jettisoned into a single all-encompassing cameo early in the film and then another one later on the Hogwarts train. And if the many character deaths in the first 30 minutes weren’t proof enough, it would seem that the franchise is really trying to ditch some weight to build speed and end it all with a bang next summer in Part 2. Altering the story structure helps to accomplish this, and it allows us a fresh plot.

Essentially, this Potter outing is about Harry (Daniel Racliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) doing their own Frodo-Sam journey as the rest of the magic kingdom quickly descends into a wand-wiggling civil war. After the shocker death of Dumbledore in the sixth film, Voldemort, He Who Is Without Nose, has uncloaked his legion of meanies and they openly hunt Harry and his many pals, which is why Harry spends the entire film on the run and sleeping in a tent that Coleman has yet to duplicate.

The three stars hold up the film and its lengthy plot, but you can see their acting — or lack thereof — shining through. It’s a testament to these three actors’ growth   that they can keep this film afloat; two films ago it would have hardly been possible for them to carry the whole show.

Harry is resolute and somewhat detached from the action. Maybe that’s how Harry was written, but he seems mildly tranquilized by Radcliffe’s wooden performance. Ron is given bigger scenes, and a hero pose, but he’s still being played far too young and too immature by Grint, who seems to think Ron is perpetually 7 years old — every look he gives is like, “Gee wiz, did I do that?” Hermione, of course, is still the most interesting character. In her first scene she must erase herself from her parents’ memories in fear they become victims of Voldemort’s wrath.

Unlike the Twilight films, which are filled with sexually ambiguous characters who apparently have never noticed their private parts before, the three leads in Harry Potter are slowly coming of age in all the ways that implies, especially Watson, who plays Hermione with a modest sexuality. Not only are they attracted to each other, there seems to be real sexual tension in the air, and in another movie they might likely tear their clothes off and rumble around. The film wisely acknowledges all this without making it awkward for families, although there is one scene of Harry and Hermione striking an Adam and Eve pose that will surely get some giggles.

When the characters aren’t making kissy faces at each other, they spend much of the movie moping around the forest trying to decide what to do next. They’re the slowest scenes in Deathly Hallows, but they’re buoyed up by three spectacular action scenes that are highwater marks for the series.

One is a chase sequence with Hagrid on a motorcycle and Harry in the sidecar, a scene that proves motorcycle sidecars can never be overused in films. Another involves Harry, Ron and Hermione assuming new identities to break into the Ministry of Magic, where they must steal a gemstone that contains part of Voldemort’s soul. The final action battle, involving that doofus Draco Malfoy, had a character in it played by John Hurt and all I could think of was, “Hey, when did John Hurt join this franchise?” (Apparently, it was back in the first movie, which is further proof that these casts are way too big.)

While these scenes are electric, the slower, more esoteric middle sequences are jarringly slow. And they only lead to missed moments, like when a real mystery develops regarding the whereabouts of a mystical sword only to have the film deliver it by an unexplained blue light, which drops it in a random pond — mystery solved … blah.

Deathly Hallows should also be chided for not preparing the viewer better for the plot. Surely diehard fans don’t need a recap, but it’s a courtesy to at least mention some of the basics. It also gives the film a beginning. Deathly Hallows begins with absolutely no explanation of anything. If you haven’t read all of Rowling’s writing then all the raised eyebrows, magical spells, budding relationships and, oh yeah the death of freakin’ Dumbledore, will be lost to you.

It sounds like I’m complaining here, but I’m sure Part 1 will play better when it’s viewed with Part 2. At that point, Part 1’s slow middle will only seem like a warm-up to Part 2’s all-out wizard Armageddon.

It’s just unfortunate that your money was desired so much that it warranted the splitting of the movie. And don’t tell me, “But there was too much in the book to make it one movie.” Maybe, but surely this movie could have been condensed and added onto its other half and released as one film. It would have been over three hours long, but if Lord of the Rings taught us anything it’s that audiences will sit through it and appreciate that the franchise wasn’t wasting their time and money.