With its haunted vistas, clanking battles, inspired effects, heroism, treachery, fragile alliances and moral ambiguity, the blockbuster finale of the Harry Potter saga achieves a supernatural splendor. The series has sputtered here and there over the past decade, losing its focus and tempo, but this climax is a triumph of spectacle and well-earned sentiment.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" is the anti-"Transformers," high adventure with heart and soul to spare.
Daniel Radcliffe has matured into a solid actor, impressive in tense scenes of deadly combat and quiet moments of subtle, shifting emotion. He puts those skills to good use in Harry's showdown with Lord Voldemort, the snake-faced tyrant who killed Harry's parents and aims to crush the world beneath his heel. With Hermione (Emma Watson, her iron-jawed self-confidence draining away) and Ron (Rupert Grint, whose befuddled expression suits his overwhelmed character), Harry returns to Hogwarts to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes, the containers in which Voldemort has hidden fragments of his malignant soul.
How the school has changed from the joyous theme park of old. Dementors float above the courtyard, their tattered shrouds trailing like jellyfish tentacles. Students march in prison camp formation. Overseeing it all from a high window is Voldemort's ally, Prof. Snape (Alan Rickman, delivering each line of dialogue as if savoring a plum). His expression is stoic but ... could that be a flicker of regret?
The story has an epic war-movie feel, as Voldemort's army strikes back against Harry's student and staff rebellion.
Director David Yates keeps the ebb and flow of combat clear; for all its blitzkrieg energy, the battle never feels incoherent.
What distinguishes this from other summer shrapnel-fests is the way it follows individuals we care about through the conflict. Second fiddles Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) and Prof. McGonagall (Maggie Smith) step forward to play pivotal roles. The film creates a world where heroism and deceit spring from unexpected sources. It's one of the glories of the Potter series that it can deliver a childlike sense of wonder without requiring a childish black-and-white worldview.
And what wonders are on display! The power bolts, spells and invisibility cloaks are beautifully realized, absurd yet persuasive. The brutish ogres and giant tarantulas Voldemort unleashes in the final battle inspire genuine shivers of fear. And there are witty miracles; the dragon demolition of Gringott's goblin bank is a riotous image of a corrupt financial firm's collapse. When Hermione transforms herself into a double of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) for a spy mission, Bonham Carter plays Watson impersonating Bellatrix to hilarious effect.
Near the climax, Harry's mentor, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), returns in a vision to advise the young wizard that words are potent forms of enchantment, rich with the power to hurt or heal. Here the secret of the series is revealed.
If the Potter franchise had been cooked up in a studio pitch meeting with storyboards and visual-effects demos, it could never have become the generation-defining phenomenon that it is. It captured the imagination of an era like no cultural event since Beatlemania because it stands on a solid million-word foundation created by J.K. Rowling. She put story and character front and center, and when they're succeeding, the Potter films do, too.
For all the movies' dazzle and flash and Hippogriffs, the characters are more vivid than the special effects. It is our emotional involvement with the three-dimensional heroes and villains, sidekicks and background players that draws us back time after time. The final chapter ends with an epilogue that puts a lump in your throat and makes you want to watch them all again from the beginning. That's the definition of a classic.