The funny thing about the decade long Harry Potter film series is that each new installment has -- despite many directorial changes -- achieved a consistent level of goodness. But that's just the thing; each one is reasonably good without ever being truly great. The exception may be 2003's enchanting "The Prisoner of Azkaban" -- the Alfonso Cuaron helmed episode with enough surprises (Sirius Black isn't evil? Scabbers is Peter Pettigrew! Hermoine got hot!) and artistic creativity to convince us the celluloid itself was magic. That one stands out above the rest. Still, "Harry Potter", unlike its more mature and self-serious lit-based cousin "Lord of the Rings", has never been able to break into the upper echelon of contemporary cinematic fantasy. The final chapter in this gargantuan wiz-kid oeuvre, "Deathly Hollows - Part 2", runs in the same crowd as its predecessors; it's good. The law of averages would say that these eight merely good films would make for a merely good whole. So how come the Harry Potter film series is so much more than that? How come it's great?
I wish I could say it's simply due to the greatness of its source material -- author J.K. Rowling's infectiously imaginative Potter chronicles have become de facto required reading among young and old alike. But great books don't always translate to great films (two recent examples: Peter Jackson's scatterbrained take on "The Lovely Bones" and Mark Romenek's tragically inert "Never Let Me Go"... double ecchh!) And considering that attempts by studios to harness Potter magic by adapting other enduring kid-lit phenoms like "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Lemony Snickets" into cash raking empires have fallen fatally dead, the question remains: what makes the bespectacled wizard so special?
I think in Potter's case, as opposed to, say, Narnia, its relative modernity is actually one of its finer qualities. (Narnia, from 1949, seemed dug from a dusty vault of grandparent's fantasies). The first HP book was published in 1997; the first film premiered in 2001. The books and films provided a parallel universe, and Harry himself provided a voice, for millions of people who learned on September 11th, 2001 that the real world was a dark place, and the subsequent decade proved that it could get even darker. Over 7 books, Harry not only grew up (as kids tend to do) in an uncertain world, but he faced evil head on, and in a realm that was so alien yet weirdly familiar -- that it latched on to the collective imaginations of young kids, and young souls alike, who could feel right at home and light-years away with every new Potter escapade. Harry's journey became vicariously ours. I'm sure for some; they could not truly grow up and take on life's prickly challenges until Harry did.
And in "Deathly Hollows -- Part 2" he does with admirable bravery. The story picks up where "Part 1" left off with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his pals, the precocious Hermoine and the rustic Ron, searching for Holcruxes -- the objects that contain pieces of evil Lord Voldemort's soul. Their quest leads them back to Hogwarts, their wizard academy, where a final showdown between Voldemort's Death-Eaters and Harry's posse -- respectfully named Dumbledore's Army -- will take place.
The prolonged final battle is a dizzying smorgasbord of spells, curses and enchantments. Hogwarts is reduced to rubble as the body count rises and the casualties of war are laid out in the Great Hall for loved ones to come and grieve. Many of the deceased, tragically, hold the faces of familiar friends from stories past; even in Potter's world of bed knobs and broomsticks, war is a terrible thing. To be honest, the Battle of Hogwarts is the fiery, destructive action spectacle I expected, but not the one I dreamt of. Even in "glorious" 3-D it's never the tremendous set piece it ought to be.
Although I'm not too bummed because it's really the more character-based aspects of "Deathly Hollows -- Part 2" that make it worth our time. The film is essentially a long, gratifying farewell to all those minor characters we loved, or even loved to hate, at one time or another along the journey. One scene in which Professor McGonagall (played by the matronly Maggie Smith) draws her wand in a bravura display of witchery against a Hogwarts foe will have you cheering, praying, and ultimately exclaiming the most unlikely of phrases: Professor McGonagall kicks ass! The awkwardly lanky mouth-breather Neville Longbottom steps up in scene after scene as an extreme underdog turned probable Medal of Honor recipient. Helena Bonham-Carter hogs every frame as the manic Bellatrix Lestrange, the satan-ess in black leather with rotting teeth. (Someone should put a leash on her). Mesmerizing career-long villain Alan Rickman again makes Professor Snape at once alluring and fiendishly confounding; when the truth behind his actions is finally revealed you may wipe away a few tears at what you wish you only knew all along. Harry feels the same way.
And even though Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson) finally make that love connection we've been waiting eight movies for (the books' numerous puppy-loves always seemed like more of a nuisance to the filmmakers than an opportunity), this final chapter is really about our favorite teenager messiah with spherical glasses, jet black hair and green eyes -- "the boy who lived" now set to face his destiny in the inevitable confrontation with Lord Voldemort (expert ham Ralph Fiennes) who's like the three-way offspring of Adolf Hitler, the devil and a Burmese python. It's quite a destiny to be sure.
But that's the reason we've read and watched Harry all these years: if anyone can take down evil that vile, it's Harry Potter. And with the news of terrorist Osama Bin Laden's demise coming only a few months before this film's release, it feels like a pregnant conclusion that -- in our world where culture and pop-culture often go hand-in-hand -- evil can indeed be triumphed over. Harry has taught us that, and more: courage, tolerance, friendship and love are what conquer wickedness in the end. Harry's wizard world is rumination on the better angels of humanity itself. Even more, consider the fact that through an entire decade, and eight feature films, we've continued to watch Radcliffe, Watson and Grint grow up before our very eyes; it's revolutionary. Guided by an entire generation of exceptional British performers, the "Harry Potter" franchise is an unqualified cinematic achievement that can go down as -- to quote Tony The Tiger -- more than good, truly great.