My, how they've grown. The adorable tots of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" are grim adolescents now, survivors in a world where death is omnipresent and swift to strike. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, having apprenticed alongside Britain's finest actors for a decade, ably carry the seventh film, a project clearly designed to let them take charge and shine.

Their high-strung performances are the most impressive aspect of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I." J.K. Rowling's event-packed narrative, as scripted by Steve Kloves, is rather a mess, a rambling series of incidents rather than a tightly plotted story. It's as if they threw ideas into the Hogwarts Sorting Hat and crossed their fingers. Even Potter devotees must admit this chapter has no dramatic shape; for the non-fan it's just this side of incomprehensible. Marauders' Maps should be handed out at the door. Exposito Confundis.

Stripped to its essence, the plot is classic Brothers Grimm: Young people get lost in the woods and struggle with a witch. In the Rowling version, the witch doesn't get pushed into the oven; the film concludes with the forces of evil magic more powerful than ever.

Their families threatened by vile Lord Voldemort's occult forces and besieged Hogwarts School a fading memory, the three friends are isolated and homeless, camping out in freezing forests. The deeper they get into the woods the more Harry, Hermione and Ron confront the darkness in themselves. Trapped in a situation that seems hopeless, they turn against each other, just as factions of the wizards' world are battling one another in conflicts that spill over into present-day London.

Lots of gore

The film begins on a note of Gothic horror as Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) convenes a meeting of his coven. They mostly ignore a struggling, agonized woman floating above the dining table like a chandelier. It's a fitting prologue for the gory maimings and murder to come.

This Potter is dominated by an atmosphere of permanent menace. It is all about the danger of being upright and truthful in a land ruled by corrupt government agencies and dishonest media cartels. There is a wonderful image of the misinformation industry manufacturing broadsheets of lies that go winging through the air like paper airplanes with minds of their own.

Rowling is not a writer of memorable dialogue, but director David Yates compensates with some eloquent visuals. Harry's silent leave-taking from the empty Dursley residence is quite affecting. If Harry's life with his obnoxious uncle was oppressive and limited, it was also secure and predictable. In a neat shot, Harry gazes at a pair of his old tin soldiers. One is upright, his saber raised, the other lying flat. The moment delivers a pang of nostalgia while foreshadowing Harry's imminent showdown with Voldemort.

The key to defeating the evil wizard is locating and learning how to destroy the seven Horcruxes in which he has preserved portions of his soul. When Harry and the others seize one of the medallions, they become spiritually possessed by it. Harry, still dealing with his childhood demons -- literally -- is beset by awful visions. Yates' daring shots are the visual equivalent of nightmarish psychological collapse. There are many stunning effects in the film, swirling creatures that coil like ink in water, and a haunting witches' folk tale presented in shadowy sepia animation.

The flood of visuals never overwhelms the characters, which I think is the key to "Potter's" worldwide success. Would-be series such as "Lemony Snicket," "The Golden Compass" and "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" boast remarkable graphics, but lack the Potter saga's engaging protagonists and ideally cast young actors. They don't do the showiest acting in the piece. Those honors go to Imelda Staunton as haughty, waspish Dolores Umbrage and Helena Bonham Carter, cackling like a hyena as the delightfully mad Bellatrix Lestrange. But Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, having literally grown up in their characters, are ready for their close-up. They earned it, they deserve it and they nailed it.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186