Imagine that you’ve been in a coma for the last 15 years and missed the whole Harry Potter thing.
You’ve no knowledge of the real-life rags to riches story of creator J.K. Rowling. Of the long lines of readers awaiting midnight sales of the latest installment. Of the worldwide mania. Of the rise in childhood literacy. The theme park.
Imagine that the slate has been wiped clean. You’re a total Harry virgin.
Under those circumstances, if you were taken to a theater and shown one of the “Harry Potter” movies, what would you make of it?
Be honest, now.
Well, from a technical point of view the films are diverting enough. The production design, the special effects, the cinematography, the costuming. Very nice.
And dramatically? There’s the rub.
None of the “Harry” movies feel like a movie. Each feels like an installment in a long-running serial, a piece in a bigger puzzle.
Taken individually they’re narratively dissatisfying. I’ve never been moved by a “Potter” movie like I was moved by, say, “The King’s Speech” or, to really go out on a limb, “The Tree of Life.”
As someone who read the first novel and stopped there, I’ve always left a “Potter” movie feeling I’d been shown a lot but, finally, that I was taken nowhere.
The “Potter” films offer interesting and sometimes lovable characters (when there is time to develop them, which isn’t often) and a childlike sense of wonder (evolving over time to a grown-up sense of dread and tragedy).
But individually they lack emotionally engaging narrative arcs. Instead of offering a coherent story — beginning, middle, end — a “Potter” movie seems like a bundle of vaguely related episodes that quickly speed past and that ultimately add up to little.
If you’re a fan of the books, these episodes are hugely important. They’re what you remember from your reading experience and what you want to see on the screen.
This also explains why the filmmakers have been so loathe to rethink the books to play better as movies. The fans don’t want a real movie. They want a film that recreates the experience of reading the book. Two very different things.
And if you’re not a fan, if you’re indifferent to the whole scene, these films seem disjointed and oddly incomplete. “Harry” movies don’t flow like well-made drama. They’re jerked first in one direction, then in another. Their goal is to throw up on the screen as many moments from the books as the running time will allow.
Which brings us to “Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows: Part 2,” in which the movie saga is finally brought to a more-or-less satisfying conclusion.
It’s not that director David Yates and longtime screenwriter Steve Kloves have solved the series’ dramatic problems. “Hallows 2” suffers from the same shortcomings as its predecessors, but it at least provides something no other “Potter” movie has delivered: closure.
This is it, the end of the big yarn when all the loose strings are knotted together more or less to our satisfaction.
A diagram of what goes in here would look like this: In the first hour Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Rom (Rupert Grint) try to track down the remaining horcruxes — objects imbued with parts of the spirit of the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). If they can find and destroy these objects, our heroes may weaken the loathsome sorcerer enough to defeat him.
One sequence finds the trio sneaking into the subterranean vault in which the malevolent Bellatrix (Helena Bonham Carter) keeps her ill-gained loot. They find the horcrux (it’s in the form of a chalice) but barely make it out alive, escaping only on the back of an abused dragon left to guard the treasure.
Then it’s off to Hogwarts, the boarding school for wizards and witches, where another horcrux in the form of a tiara is located in a vast dungeon-like storeroom holding the castoff belongings of thousands of former students. Again, our determined heroes barely escape the flames that engulf the place.
The second half of the film finds Hogwarts transformed into a fortress in which the good wizards and witches are besieged by Voldemort’s vast army. It’s like the Alamo with wands and trolls instead of flintlocks and bayonets.
Actually, it’s a lot like the Helm’s Deep sequence in the second “Lord of the Rings” movie. It’s quite spectacular with plenty of action.
A few familiar and beloved characters die. There’s a satisfying mini-story involving the sweetly inept Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), a minor character who has been the butt of jokes in previous films but here matures into a genuine hero.
There’s also a nifty subplot in which the true allegiance of Alan Rickman’s disdainful Professor Snape becomes clear (a nice last-act reveal).
And there are some really lovely, funny and sobering moments in which our young characters — whom we’ve watched grow up before our eyes for more than a decade — finally fall passionately into lip-locking clinches. No point in playing it safe when you might be dead by dawn.
There are a few things I could have done without. Apparently nobody ever really dies in Harry’s world…they’re always hovering around as ghosts dispensing wisdom. This allows even characters that succumbed in previous episodes (Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore and Gary Oldman’s Sirius Black, for instance) to make final appearances.
In fact, just about every actor who played a named character in the series seems to show up here, even if it’s only for one shot. This turns “Hallows 2” into a witch’s version of “Where’s Waldo?”
Julie Walters, who plays Ron’s mum and has been in all the films, gets but one line of dialogue this time around…but it’s right out of the Sigourney Weaver playbook. Confronting Bonham Carter’s malevolent Bellatrix, who is threatening the Weasley family, Waters hisses: “Not my daughter, you bitch!”
As Ron might say, “Wicked!”
And finally “Hallows 2” provides an epilogue 19 years on in which we see the major characters entering middle age and sending their own offspring off to Hogwarts. It provides a nice sense of continuity and ongoing tradition.
Am I glad to have seen all the “Harry Potter” movies?
Yeah, sure. Why not?
Were they essential viewing?
Not even close.