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'Harry Potter': When "Good" Should Have Been "Great!"

Like any grand finale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows needs some significant pre-flight preparation. With Yates as pilot, however, the supposedly historic journey never gets off the least, not yet.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Director: David Yates
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Griffiths, John Hurt, Rhys Ifans
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-11-19 (General release)
UK date: 2010-11-19 (General release)

This is it. This is the moment that Harry Potter fans have been waiting for since the small boy wizard was "rescued" from his oppressive muggle guardians and shipped off to Hogwarts to begin his magic education. All the previous adventures, all the previous big screen adaptation of same - this is where it's all been heading. Harry and his friends are utterly alone, exiled from the rest of their "normal" sorcerer schoolmates. The undeniably evil Voldemort, positioning himself to destroy the boy and rule the world, is rallying his diabolical Death Eaters to discover Harry's whereabouts - and leave no one alive in their path. With the Order of the Phoenix unable to truly stop them and a quest to seek the Horcruxes crucial to Voldemort's immortality, it's as if the entirety of JK Rowling's mythos is coming together in one epic battle between good and evil...and it is.

So how does director David Yates handle such a sweeping send-off? Does he pull out all the stops and transport the audience into situations so overwhelming in scope that they feel they are part of such apocalyptic events. No. As a matter of fact, the UK filmmaker treats Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (yes, this is a "to be continued" installment of the series) like one of those famed British TV dramas were a single significant story arc is dragged out for an entire six episode "series" - except in this case, he's taken the elephantine tome by Rowling and divided it in two. This is not the end of the famed literary/film franchise - it's the beginning of the end. This is the famed long goodbye, a beloved performer standing on the stage and taking the necessary multiple curtain calls before finally fading out. As a result, what should have been great is merely good, a solid prequel to the proposed chaos to come.

When we last left Harry, he was literally lost after the death of his friend, mentor, and Hogwart's headmaster Dumbledore. Voldemort has his number and is chasing him mercilessly. With the aid of his best friends Ron and Hermione and various remaining members of the Order of the Phoenix, Harry hopes to hide out, discover the secret locations of the valuable Horcruxes, and upon destroying them, get rid of the wicked Dark Lord once and for all. Of course, it won't be easy - especially with the Ministry of Magic and many former associates in league with his powerful enemy. Of course, Harry has his pals, and his destiny as the Chosen One to work with, though even such sentiments may not be enough to win out this time around. Voldemort is just that strong...and determined.

While it hurls plot points and future storyline set-ups at the audience with reckless abandon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 can't help but suffer from some important problems. First and foremost is the pacing. Because Yates (who got his start in British TV) now has five hours to work with instead of the standard two to two and a half, he can draw out some of the dramatics. But because he lacks real vision (more on this in a moment), Yates can't get the necessary heft out of his extended approach. Moments when we are supposed to see Harry, Hermione, and Ron truly distraught instead play like filler before the next major denouement. Even those instances where the vista supplies most of the depth, Yates just can't get his camera to truly capture the moment. Even worse, this is the first installment in the series that demands a working knowledge of the material beforehand. For the most part, the previously films could more or less work on their own. Here, if you don't know the players, you can easily get lost.

But it's vision (or a lack thereof) that continues to plague Yates here. It's the biggest lingering complaint with the Harry Potter series - after Alfonso Cuaron injected some recognizable artistry into the series mix, the rest of the films have been merely serviceable at best. There's no pop, no undeniable "wow" factor that lifts the viewer out of their knowledge of watching an adaptation of their favorite material and into an actual movie. No matter how hard he tries, Yates always seems like a visualizer, not a visionary. He is merely piecing through Rowling's work, realizing what he knows fans and the author want from the effort, but little more. What's missing here is the pizazz, the belief we are being transported to another time, another place. Instead, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 often plays like an A&E recreation of famous scenes from the book.

Maybe Steven Spielberg had the right idea when he suggested the source be handled as animation. Indeed, there is a terrific sequence toward the last half which showcases how amazing such a style could have been. In describing the import and meaning of "the Deathly Hallows", we get a striking pen and ink explanation that overloads the screen with powerful, potent imagery. Extrapolated outward, imagine the vastness of the Potter universe rendered in such a manner - or outside the artform, handled by someone with a similar sensibility and aesthetic. Instead of writing off each entry as yet another well meaning entry in a commercially viable franchise, we'd be discussing art and awards season potential.

Maybe when they are placed together side by side, when the somber set-up clashes into and meshes with the wild whiz-bang finale, the whole of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will become clear. As usual, the performances are pitch perfect, main actors Daniel Radcliff (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron), and Emma Watson (Hermione) carrying the majority of the narrative with increasing impressiveness. Include what seems like the entire wealth of the UK acting profession and they've got some impressive company within which to work. It's just too bad then that they couldn't find (or get Rowling to approve) a true creative artist to step behind the lens and transform this material. Like any grand finale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows needs some significant pre-flight preparation. With Yates as pilot, however, the supposedly historic journey never gets off the least, not yet.


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