All Is Well

The Harry Potter film franchise ends on a dark high note

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Warner Bros.

Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

For the millions of kids who grew up reading the books and seeing the movies — and for the rest of us, thrown into an imaginary and enthralling adolescence — the wizarding world of Harry Potter was an alternate educational universe. We could play hooky from the cares of our lives by matriculating at Hogwarts School as the permanent pals of the Boy Who Lived. He grew from childhood to early maturity playing Quidditch (ah, the innocence of those first years!), cramming for the Charms finals and preparing to confront the Dark Lord Voldemort, that most powerful creature, whose mission was to kill Harry. All that time, we were at the lad's side, in a reader's or movie watcher's invisibility cloak, hoping Harry knew he could rely on the loyalty of his very dearest friends: Ron, Hermione and us.

A fantasy epic with the unusual goal in these facetious movie days of being iconic, not ironic, the Harry Potter films had the benefit of a bedrock constituency: all the fans of J.K. Rowling's wizardly septology. The filmmakers could have filled their Gringotts vaults with cash (some $6.4 billion at the global box office plus untold quillions in home video) and still failed the source material. Instead, producer David Heyman and his team saw their roles as trustees of a sacred text and their mission to guide Rowling's teen hero to the screen with a buoyant reverence. Planned as the longest single narrative (more than 18 hours) in mainstream-movie history, and with a total production budget of well over $1 billion, the series fulfilled its gargantuan ambitions. It also proved that children could sit through a 2½-hour movie without a bathroom break. Who knew that cinematic rapture could overcome bladder imperatives?

Harry's tale extends across seven winters, but for us it took a decade: the books were issued from 1997 to 2007, their film versions from 2001 to this moment. The three lead actors have spent half their lives inside their characters. We've seen Daniel Radcliffe (Harry) sprout chest hair and Emma Watson (Hermione) cleavage. The series matured too, finding its true, confident tone with the third chapter, The Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Alfonso Cuarón.

So here is where it ends — finally. Harry's senior year took two years; in an act of movie mitosis, Rowling's final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was split into two features consuming more than 4½ hours. The first part, released last November, could have been called The Dawdling Hallows: it stranded the kids in the woods for endless scenes of teen moping and marked a steep slump from the high standard the series had set.

With Deathly Hallows 2, screenwriter Steve Kloves, who wrote all but one of the films, and director David Yates, helmer of the final four, are back on firm footing — hurtling through Rowling's last 300 pages toward the big face-off between Harry and You Know Who (Ralph Fiennes in majestic, maleficent snake-face). Essentially a war movie, DH2 portrays the siege of Hogwarts as a children's crusade with late-blooming heroes. (Neville, we hardly knew ye.) And it summons most of its huge, sublime supporting cast for brief appearances — a reminder that the series is a luscious, perhaps unparalleled showcase for this generation's most enduring British actors. Michael Gambon as Dumbledore and Alan Rickman as Snape take one last curtain call.

DH2 is the franchise's climax but not quite its emotional apex. How could the series transcend the originals in quality or intensity? Most viewers had already made their own movie versions when they read the books, their imaginations in intimate collaboration with Rowling's. It was good enough that the films provided sumptuous illustrations of the story: a glamorous night-light for rereading Rowling. And often so much better than good.

Now the vast sets have been dismantled, the cast and crew dispersed with final hugs and tearful thanks. We may have ended our journey, but the films will dwell like a house elf in our hearts and on that perpetual-memory machine, the DVD. School's out, but we'll always have Hogwarts.