Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011)

For some, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2” was the biggest pop culture event of their lives. It was a “Return of the Jedi” for a new generation, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Audiences turned out in droves. “Deathly Hallows – Part 2” became the most popular film of the year, made over a billion dollars, and currently rests as the eighth highest grossing film of all time. For me, it was the first film in the series I skipped in theaters. By the time the final “Harry Potter” film rolled around, I was entirely unconnected with this series. I just didn’t care anymore, eventually giving the sequel a dispassionate look on DVD. Am I a little more invested in the film at the tail end of a Harry Potter marathon?

Splitting the last book into two adaptations does make the eventual return to Hogwarts more meaningful. After a lengthy sequence inside Gringotts Bank, “Deathly Hallows – Part 2” is primarily set at the school. This allows a lot of familiar faces to return. Maggie Smith’s Miss McGonagall gets a big moment to herself, crowd-controlling rowdy students and summoning stone soldiers. Neville Longbottom becomes an unlikely hero, decapitating Voldemort’s giant snake. Luna Lovegood helps reveal an important plot point. Cho even shows up. This isn’t even mentioning the notable characters who get big death scenes, like Lupin. Even Griphook the goblin gets a meaty role, Warwick Davis really allowed to show his acting skills.

J.K. Rowling and the filmmakers adapting her work definitely wanted to bring things full circle. So how come they devote major sequences to more-or-less new characters? At one point, Harry needs help from a ghost to retrieve a Horcrux. You’d expect Nearly Headless Nick to reappear, right? Nope. Instead, the Grey Lady - a ghost referenced but never before seen – puts in an appearance. Later, the trio sneaks back into Hogwarts through the surrounding village. The character that greets them is Dumbledore’s brother. We’ve met the character before but he’s played by a different actor in a radically different way. These characters awkwardly dump some new mythological bits on the audience before moving on. Which definitely seems out of place in the final film in the series.

“The Deathly Hallows – Part 2” gets at the root of Voldemort’s motivation. Every horrible thing the villain has done has been to avoid death. This is contrasted with the other characters in the story. Such as Harry’s parents, who gave up their lives to protect a loved one. Or Dumbledore, who accepts his passing with serenity. The inevitably of death seems to be the film’s main theme, that everything has to end. Yet there’s one snag. Through the course of the film, Harry Potter dies and comes back to life. He does this with the help of another plot device, a magical resurrection stone. What Rowling is trying to say is that Potter’s willingness to die for others separates him from Voldemort. In practice, it makes the film’s theme seem like “Nobody can escape death… Except for Harry Potter.”

Another character that gets a graceful death scene is Professor Snape. Alan Rickman’s wizard is struck down by the villain for entirely selfish reasons. After dying, he grants Harry access to his memories. What we see is a tragic story of a man who has devoted ever lasting love to one woman. Of a person of incredible ethics, who did what his friends asked of him, who protected and cared for others. Since Snape has spent seven films as a hard-ass, it’s touching to see his sensitive side. To see that not only was Snape a good man but maybe the most complicated character in the entire series.

In order to be a properly epic conclusion, “Deathly Hallows – Part 2” is filled with huge action sequences. Hermione rides a huge white dragon out of Gringotts Bank, spraying fire at attackers. Inside the school, Harry and Ron barely escape a room going up in flames, chased by a fiery serpent. The battle of Hogwarts is clearly the central sequence of the film. Trolls, giant spiders, and huge stone soldiers all play their part. Half of the castle explodes. A minor character gets killed by a werewolf. The Weasley mother and Bellatrix LeStrange get a notable fight to themselves. It truly feels like a war, with the fate of the world at risk. It’s a big moment and suitably impressive.

Even as someone only casually invested in this series, finally seeing Harry and Voldemort face off is exciting. Harry pretends to be dead, choosing the right moment to reveal that he still lives, in order to strike a blow to the villain’s fragile ego. The hero continues to strike at the bad guy’s persona by referring to him as “Tom” throughout the last act. You can tell it’s personal because Voldemort isn’t using magic to attack Harry. He’s striking him with his bare hands. There’s an impressive moment when the two leap off the castle together, like Holmes and Moriarty over Reichenbach Falls. The last duel is treated with the proper weight, the hero and the villain meeting in a clearing and blasting at each other. It’s pretty neat, I guess.

In Rowling’s book, she included an incredibly controversial epilogue. It was mostly unnecessary, Rowling seemingly tossing it into the book in order to spite the shippers. The future set ending could’ve been clipped from the movie without loosing too much. We didn’t need to see Harry and Ginny’s son to know they turned out okay. (Though I’m really surprised Harry would permit his kid to go to school, considering how many time he almost died because of Hogwarts.) It’s an odd note to take the franchise out on. I would’ve prefer to see Harry and the gang moving on with their lives, instead of a big insurance to the audience that the adventure will continue.

Having waded my way through the entire cinematic Harry Potter experience, I come out on the other side… Well, still not totally getting it. Most of the films are entertaining, a few are a bore, they’re all well made, but I still don’t quite get the cultish devotion. Maybe I’m just not the target audience? Maybe I need to re-read the books? Seems to me that the films not made by Chris Columbus or David Yates are the most interesting ones. As for the final chamber, it’s mid-tier “Potter,” satisfying in a number of ways but still hassled by some odd scripting decisions. [7/10]

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