There are teenagers today who have lived their entire lives in the Age of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling's first book in the Potter series was published in Britain in 1997, and made it to the movies in 2001. The books have sold hundreds of millions of copies worldwide; the pictures have grossed more than $5 billion, and spun off all manner of shelf-clogging merch. (I myself am in possession of a Harry Potter clock, a number of adorable Potter figurines, and of course a replica of the young wizard's mighty wand—all freebies, I hasten to add.)
But the literary Potter saga came to an end in 2007, with the publication of the very dark Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. So with the conclusion of the tale no longer in doubt, the movies have been reduced to playing catch-up, going through the familiar motions on their way to a culmination that's already well-known. I thought last year's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, with its destabilizing fixation on teen hormonal stirrings, was the least interesting of the films to that point. However, the new Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, with its clotted talkiness and abundant longueurs, now takes pride of place in that department.
The decision to split Rowling's book into two movies (Part 2 will arrive next July—in 3D, inevitably) was perhaps understandable: There are an awful lot of plot strands to be wrapped up. But the longest of the Potter books, Order of the Phoenix, somehow fit into a single film. And since whole sequences of this new movie cry out for trimming, or even elimination, one wonders if Deathly Hallows couldn't have been condensed in some similar fashion. No doubt Warner Bros. is reluctant to hurry the end of this fabulously profitable franchise; but the result is that Part 1, after two and a half lackluster hours, comes to an abrupt and unsatisfying semi-denouement.
The original enchantments of the Potter series—the kids in their spruce black boarding-school robes; the wonderfully eccentric teachers; the grand premises of Hogwarts, with its shifting staircases and multitudes of hovering candles—have pretty much fallen away here. Hogwarts itself doesn't even put in an appearance; and while we do get a herd of iconic characters from the past—among them Hagrid (Robby Coltrane); Snape (Alan Rickman); Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson); even the now-dead Dumbledore (Michael Gambon)—most of them are doing cameo duty, and are quickly ushered back offstage. The focus now is unsparingly on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his loyal mates Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) as they flee the resurgent Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) in search of the Horcruxes that can bring about his downfall.
This is not an entirely good thing. Apart from seeming just a little old for their roles at this point (especially Grint, a burly 21 at the time of filming), the three leads don't really have the expressive heft (or the dialogue that would facilitate it) to hold this long movie together; and so some of the many meandering conversational scenes are sadly awkward. Worse yet, they take place in some exceedingly dull locales—there's a lot of mooning about in forests and tents—and you can almost feel the young actors itching to move on to the final installment of the series and to bring their decade-long labors to an end.
There are some moving interludes (like Harry's visit to Godric's Hollow, and the cemetery where his parents are buried) and some funny ones, too (the transformation, via Polyjuice Potion, of a group of characters into identical Harry doppelgängers is wittily staged); and there's a delicate animated sequence that is the movie's most charming adornment. Naturally there's some impressive CGI, too—particularly a mad chase through the night sky with Harry and Hagrid swooping down on their flying motorcycle into a London tunnel teeming with traffic. But the movie is generally slow and morose, and, in the end, beyond the redemption of even the snazziest technology.
Which is to say that the magic seems to have flown, at least temporarily, from this once-captivating series. David Yates, who also directed the underwhelming Half-Blood Prince, may bring things to a stirring conclusion with the final picture, who knows. On the basis of this one, though, longtime fans (I'm one) have some cause to worry.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.