It all started with a juvenile fiction novel about a teen boy with hidden magical powers and a grand wizarding destiny that he finds by leaving his non-magical "muggle" family and attending an English boarding school with a magical twist, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. That book was published in 1997 with the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and a film version followed in November, 2001. Since then the seven Harry Potter books that document his years of study at Hogwarts and ultimate showdown with arch-enemy Voldemort have become a world-wide phenomenon, and the seven films to date have created a series unlike any other in the history of Hollywood, a cinematic storyline that spans a decade and has created millions of fanatical fans.
Which is why the first installment of the two-parter Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows proves to be such a disappointment. The book is the weakest in the series, even as it resolves the final conflict between the Dark Lord and the boy wizard who is The Chosen One.
Prior to Deathly Hallows pt 1, one of the best things about the Harry Potter films was that they worked as standalone movies, entertaining, exciting and with stories that let Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) overcome challenges and mature as a courageous young man with a destiny. If you'd seen the previous films in the series, the story worked even better as you could share the adolescent journey of Potter and his pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) as the epic tale of good vs. evil progressed.
If you're a Potter fan, you've already seen the film and probably found it a delightful opportunity to catch up with not just Harry, Ron and Hermione, but the Weasley family, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson) and hiss at evildoers Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), the over-the-top Bellatrix (Helena Bonham Carter) and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). If you're just looking for an entertaining film, I suggest you skip Deathly Hallows, part 1. Maybe when part 2 is released in Summer, 2011, the two will add up to one good (albeit ridiculously long) last entry in the Potter series, but as it is, this is the most forgettable, most disappointing film of the series.
For all of its 146 minutes, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1, is primarily a tediously slow chase film where the heroes hide from Voldemort's minions (the "death eaters") by camping in various isolated locations while trying to track down the powerful horcrux, icons that when combined will give Voldemort ultimate power over life and death.
The film is really about the challenges of the adolescent characters, including the still-unresolve complicated romantic triangle between Harry, Hermione and Ron. As actors, they've all three grown in their craft and their performances are nuanced and thoughtful, but weak material makes for a slow film and the occasional special effects and dramatic moments just can't enliven the story enough to make an exciting film.
Hermione (Emma Watson) comforts Ron (Rupert Grint) in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1
And yet, it is delightful to see the cast on screen again in a beautifully produced film with enough exterior scenes that the production team might well have received a grant from the UK Travel Council. I like Harry Potter and his world, finding the overall series a superb example of The Hero's Journey. We first meet Harry as a young boy - poorly acted by first-time performer Radcliffe - and find that he not only has a magical destiny that marks him as The Chosen One, but a fearsome, evil antagonist, Voldemort, referred in the earlier books as the spooky "He Who Shall Not Be Named".
Deathly Hallows, part 1 opens with Harry and Hermione leaving their families, the latter inexplicably casting a spell that removes her from her parents memories and even family portraits. The world has become a far more dangerous place, with Death Eaters taking over both the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts. At times there's a 1984 sense to the film, particularly in the effective scenes where Harry and pals sneak into the Ministry to encounter Nazi-like thought police.
One of my favorite parts of the film was a rather odd animated sequence that told the story of the Deathly Hallows, a series of three magical objects (the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone and the Invisibility Cloak) that are Voldemort's ultimate goal, even as Harry and pals seek the Horcruxes to try and defeat him. Animated by Ben Hibon, the shadow-puppet sequence seemed like it'd be a better fit in a Don Quixote film, even as it told the story in an effective manner.
How much of the blame for Deathly Hallows, part 1 lies with the cast, director David Yates or screenwriter Steve Kloves, and how much should be assigned to J. K. Rowling, whose series peaked prior to the release of her last installment? Just as The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian was the weakest book in the Narnia series and unsurprisingly produced a weak film, the overly long 784-page book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is also slow, occasionally boring and unsatisfying (with an unnecessary epilogue that this reviewer and fan dearly hopes they omit from the second part of the film).
There are readers who are going to vehemently disagree with my review, and even as I've shared this with friends, many have said that they thought Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1, was terrific, exciting and one of their very favorite chapters of the series. That's okay, they're avowed fans and willing to forgive almost anything for the pleasure of seeing the characters grow up and overcome their obstacles. From a purely cinematic perspective, however, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1 just doesn't work as a standalone film and won't be enjoyable to anyone other than a Potter fan.