If last year's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" marked the beginning of the end with a gripping feeling of doom and gloom, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" wraps things up once and for all on a note of melancholy.
Oh, it's dramatic, to be sure: gorgeous, somber and startling as the young wizard faces his destiny and fights the evil Lord Voldemort. But the end of this staggeringly successful movie franchise, an epic fantasy saga spanning eight films over the past decade, provides a necessary emotional catharsis for Harry and for us. Even those who aren't ardent Potterphiles -- who aren't waiting in a line around the theater with their homemade wands and hand-drawn lightning scars -- might find themselves getting unexpectedly choked up a couple of times.
That's always been the real magic of the series, based on J.K. Rowling's novels: that mixture of the exotic and the everyday, the otherworldly and the utterly relatable. No longer the innocent children they were when they entered Hogwarts, Harry, Ron and Hermione are growing up and moving on, and so must we. That the future of the wizard world hangs in the balance in this final installment is only part of the tale.
Still, director David Yates has accomplished the difficult task of bringing it all to a close in satisfying fashion. Having directed the last four of the eight films, Yates has provided a momentum and cohesion to the "Harry Potter" canon, which has gotten progressively darker and more mature. And Steve Kloves, who's written all but one of the screenplays in the series, has once again risen to the challenge of trying to please purists and casual viewers alike in adapting Rowling's revered writing.
It's hard to imagine how complicated this must have been, given the density of the mythology, even though the final book was divided into two films. (Although the epilogue, which features some of the main characters decked out in grown-up makeup, does seem a bit cheesy and hasty and it might inspire a few giggles.)
At the same time, because it took two films to depict the action in the last installment, this second half doesn't feel overstuffed or overlong. It moves with great urgency toward the final showdown between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, deeply disturbing as usual); danger infuses every moment, and it never overstays its welcome.
Much of that has to do with the look of the film, both in its attention to inventive detail and to the sweeping, elaborate set pieces. The cinematography from Eduardo Serra, who also shot "Deathly Hallows: Part 1," is once again richly ominous and beautifully bleak. Here, Hogwarts isn't a warm, bustling place full of possibilities but rather a fearsome fortress swarming with Death Eaters, where Professor Severus Snape (the deliciously icy Alan Rickman) rules as if leading his own fascist regime.
Yes, "Deathly Hallows: Part 2" is in 3-D -- it's the only installment in the series to be presented that way -- and as usual, that was unnecessary. The technical elements all looked flawless and immersive in the previous film. (Warner Bros. wisely chose not to rush the conversion from 2-D on "Deathly Hallows: Part 1," and instead took more time for the process here.) But the addition of a third dimension does allow some details to pop, and it's never a distraction.
Although the "Potter" films have always been about the escape of the spectacle, the kids and their struggle to navigate both good and evil provides some much-needed rooting in reality. Radcliffe has never been better, and brief flashbacks to the earliest images of him in the role only serve as a reminder of how far he's come. The character has long since been cemented into his identity, but more is required of him physically and emotionally than ever before, and he's more than up for it all.
"Deathly Hallows: Part 2" drops us into a menacing version of this world we've come to know, immediately and without explanation; it's a bit disorienting at first, even if you've seen all that's come before it. Then again, if you're bothering to check out the finale, in theory you should know what's going on.
Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are still hunting Horcruxes -- scattered containers that hold pieces of Voldemort's soul, which are crucial to Harry's survival -- in order to destroy them. One of them is being stored in Bellatrix Lestrange's bank vault, which allows Helena Bonham Carter to have a bit of fun with her wicked character. Hogwarts is no longer a place of refuge as Voldemort draws ever closer; his attack on the stately school is thrilling, but it also provides moments of heroism for some characters you might not expect.
Still, this is the place where all the narrative and emotional threads must converge and tie up at last. While "Deathly Hallows: Part 2" offers long-promised answers, it also dares to pose some eternal questions, and it'll stay with you after the final chapter has closed.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," a Warner Bros. Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for some sequence of intense action violence and frightening images. Running time: 130 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G -- General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG -- Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 -- Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R -- Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 -- No one under 17 admitted.