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Harry Potter rings hollow without Hogwarts

Daniel Dadcliffe as Harry Potter in a scene from blockbuster series' latest instalment

2 out of 4 stars


In the near decade since that epic event in the fall of 2001, wars have been fought, monsters have come and gone and come again, magic wands have been waved and found wanting, good has co-mingled with evil. All that and the Harry Potter saga too. Call me a simple-minded Muggle, but it's dispiriting when life imitates kiddies' art.

Happily, the end is upon us. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the seventh and final instalment of … oops, sorry, I missed that teensy Part 1 appended to the title. Seems the Hollywood money-men, in their infinite wisdom, have split J.K. Rowling's culminating tome into two flicks - one attacks the box office now, the other renews the campaign next July. No doubt, their commercial instincts are sound; no surprise, this movie isn't. Really, it's two hours and 26 minutes of hurry up and wait.

Of course, these franchise factories are all the same. The first shiny film off the line is a cultural phenomenon, the next gets downgraded to a cultural event, and the rest soon slip into the ritualized fog of a cultural habit - the kind that die hard, the kind that play only to diehards. Now ritual is reassuring, and often profitable, but exciting it ain't. There's scant magic in old habits, especially when the magicians are removed from their old stomping grounds.

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Yes, this time, Harry and his wizardly buds get whisked completely out of Hogwarts Academy, and the loss of its main setting seems to drain the yarn of its central charm. Cleverly, Rowling designed the boarding school to seem simultaneously Victorian and timeless, obviously different in its spellbinding curriculum but familiar everywhere else - in the students kindly and bullying, in the teachers good-hearted and mean, in the class-consciousness that never quite dies, in the adolescents grappling with their hormones and experimenting with their wands. Add into the corridors the Gothic tropes (giants, dwarfs, dragons) and it makes for quite the populist hook, baited with a dollop of Dickens, a dose of Tolkien, and more than a smidgeon of John Hughes.

But here, with Hogwarts excised from the picture, what's left is a void in the middle and a lot of bogus action at the periphery. Bogus, because Part 2 awaits, along with the climactic showdown between our lad Potter and the no-nosed Voldemort. So, like watching a dragged-out preliminary card before the heavyweight bout, we just want to shout, "C'mon boys, save the world, destroy the world, do what you want with the world, but for God's sake get it on." Sure, stuff happens, the young'uns do get tried, yet not nearly as much as our patience.

Anyway, the trials begin with the Dark Lord deep in his lair, pounding a boardroom table and sniffling murderous imprecations through his near-nostrils. Already, his henchmen have transformed the Muggles world into a fascist state where dissenters are disappeared en masse - a routine historical feat for which no magic is required. This leaves the star trio of Harry, Ron and Hermione (played as always by Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) to spend the bulk of the picture getting chased by various baddies, even as they search for Horcruxes and an Excalibur-like sword and other doodads designed to tip power's balance in youth's favour.

Alas, as directed by the returning David Yates, these big chase sequences are the usual compendium of ear-splitting noise and eye-glazing edits - again, no magic required and none delivered. More surprisingly, Yates repeatedly sticks the threesome into vast natural landscapes, posing them in aerial shots on rocky promontories overlooking sweeping plains or on windswept dunes by the rolling sea. It's almost as if, in the absence of Hogwarts, he's making the void literal, uncaring that his lead characters are getting swallowed up by his postcard vistas. There, on occasion, the friends attempt a bit of comedy or try a little tenderness, but the laughs, like the pathos, are just pinholes on a vast map - merely trace evidence of hoped-for destinations.

Empty too are those de rigueur cameos from the aging half of the British acting community. To be sure, the ol' troupers are present again, yet they're weirdly unaccounted for in this outing. In a hurry-up-and-wait scenario, their performances seem both shrill and disconnected, like so many electric plugs looking for an outlet. I do confess, though, to a fondness for Dobby, the little elf who speaks in saccharine clichés while referring to himself in the third person. Stick the guy on skates and he'd be a diminutive Gretzky.

Otherwise, the movie only comes alive when it's dramatizing a story within the story, using lovely animated silhouettes to recount the Parable of the Three Gentlemen. The tale is about meeting Death and comes with this moral: When The End arrives, better to embrace it with love than to try to cheat it with avarice. Hey, if nothing else, Part 1 has got some nerve, so greedily refusing to practice what it earnestly preaches.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

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  • Directed by David Yates
  • Written by Steve Kloves
  • Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson
  • Classification: PG

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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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