The New Harry Potter: A Hollow Hallows

The first film in the Harry Potter finale gets lost in the woods

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Jaap Buitendijk / Warner Bros.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

We've been through a lot, we Potterites. In the 13 years since the publication of the first book in J.K. Rowling's septology and the nine years of the movie versions in this multimedia phenomenon, we have come of age — some of teen age, some of old age. We have followed the orphan Harry from his cupboard beneath the stairs to the heights of Hogwarts. We've accompanied the young wizard on many missions in preparation for his inevitable epic battle against the dark lord Voldemort. Now the end is near, and the series' myriad fans, thronging to the opening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, face their gravest challenge yet: sitting through it.

We say this not to mock but to mourn, for the Potter films have been a mostly splendid enterprise (and have earned $5.4 billion at the box office). After two ragged initial entries, the series found its solid footing and lively tone. Fully respectful of the Rowling canon, the later episodes also functioned superbly as grand, stand-alone movie entertainment, just a notch below the Lord of the Rings trilogy in quality. The series matured along with its main characters — Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his school chums Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) — while providing a showcase for Stuart Craig's canny production design, a world of vivacious special effects and the cream of British actors. This is blockbuster filmmaking at its most intelligent; one expects, when Deathly Hallows Part 2 arrives next July, to clap the completed series on the back and pronounce a hearty "Well done."

Not this time, though. The decision by David Heyman (who has produced all the films), Steve Kloves (who's scripted all but one) and David Yates (who will have directed the last four of the eight) to cut the final book into two features — whatever its sense as a business strategy — meant slowing the story down just as it should rev up. Instead of scooting like a Golden Snitch during a Quidditch championship, DH1 is struck with a long spell of aimlessness, and the viewer with the curse of ennui.

As the film begins, the Ministry of Magic is crumbling in the malefic grip of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), and Harry has a price on his head. Exiled from the imposing comforts of Hogwarts, with no teachers to guide them, he, Hermione and Ron hit the road as outlaws: fleeing Harry's home, slipping into the Ministry to steal a special prize, moving from one safe house to another. The three spend months on the run in various forests as they try to find and destroy the Horcruxes — the seven pieces of Voldemort's soul, which grant him immortality as long as they remain intact.

This should be exciting: a treasure hunt, with the trio ever a hair's breadth from betrayal and death. In Lord of the Rings terms, the first six Potter stories took place in the boarding-school equivalent of the Shire. Now our hero is finally on his fateful quest, crossing paths with all manner of creatures — elves and goblins and Voldemort's pet snake — and steeling himself to cross wands with the Dark Lord.

Lost in the Woods
But Harry rarely goes questing. The film's movement is lateral, not forward, as Harry spends much of his time cursing his mentor Dumbledore, killed at the end of Episode 6, for not having left clearer clues to follow. The viewer feels the headmaster's absence just as acutely. Dumbledore's majesty, as incarnated by the great Michael Gambon, was fierce but soothing, his paternal love for Harry the strongest relationship in the series. With his Gandalf gone, Harry has to rely on his own suddenly skimpy resources. He seems less a hero than an ordinary, fretful 17-year-old. In other words, he's human. As Barack Obama could tell Harry, it's tough being anointed the Chosen One.

Nothing wrong with that in story terms — heroes need to doubt their mission, if not their resolve — and in the book Rowling provides plenty of exterior intrigue to enliven the dark winter of Harry's soul. But the film too closely mirrors his meandering. For an hour of its 2 ½-hour expanse, it sticks three young people in the woods with little to do but wait for awful things to happen. It's like a minimalist indie horror film — The Blair Witch and Wizard Project — on a $200 million–plus budget.

Three teens in a tent: that ought to spark some sexual tension, since Ron and Hermione are a couple, while her obvious soul mate is Harry (who's supposed to have found a life partner in Ron's sister Ginny). But except for one sad, lovely dance Harry and Hermione share to a Nick Cave song, there's no hint of attraction, let alone erotic abrasion. Ron's jealousy expresses itself in a preadolescent bolting from the premises; he's missing but not missed. The story becomes that of two balky boys and the efficient woman who must be mother to both of them. And if this segment was intended to display the acting chops of its young stars, it fails. Only Watson has the blessing of screen radiance.

Given this hole in the center of the film, the viewer fishes for side benefits. One comes in an animated telling of the wizarding legend "Tale of the Three Brothers"; it's extraneous but artful. Another is the reappearance of the house elf Dobby, whose final scene has an emotional kick the rest of the movie lacks. DH1 also bears traces of the original plan to release it in 3-D. Stuff still leaps out of the screen — the snake striking a victim, cars sent flying by Death Eaters — but few things in the movie lodge in the audience's mind or heart.

Crabby notices like this one won't stop 100 million fans from seeing DH1, if only as a liturgical obligation. Harry and Hermione — all right, and Ron — are dear friends who've given us much pleasure. They deserve our faithful company for one long, boring visit. But their guardians, the filmmakers, ill served them by stranding them in the woods for a pointless extra episode. No potion can alchemize this tattered fabric into a ripping yarn.