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The beginning of the end 

Dark times, indeed. The first part of the Harry Potter finale (part two is slated for summer 2011), plunges the viewer into the epic’s nadir. Dumbledore is dead. Voldemort is back. Death Eaters are swirling. Potter still can’t quite accept his friends’ much needed help.

It’s all a total downer, but a necessary one in order for part two to bring what everyone knows will be the most Hollywood of endings to one of its most successful franchises. If the viewer must go into this chapter cold, at least it may be somewhat entertaining to play pin the inspiration on the plot device. That locket Harry, Hermione, and Ron take turns carrying? Try the titular object in Lord of the Rings. The increased role of a CGI character in Doby? Ha, bet you never wanted to be reminded of Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars: Phantom Menace again. There’s even a Matrix-style car chase at the beginning.

While the special effects and action sequences may be slicker and flashier than the previous films (and that is really saying something), for maximum movie-watching pleasure, the viewer really ought to have put in the butt-numbing time reading or watching the previous six stories. Because while the Potter franchise may look like big action fantasy, its heart still lies with J.K. Rowling’s incredibly complicated story.

In this chapter, Potter, Hermione, and Ron are essentially fugitives, as Voldemort has taken control of the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts and has all his minions on the lookout for his 16-year-old nemesis. Voldemort’s increased creepy presence, as personified by Ralph Fiennes’ snake-like face, means more scary scenes that might terrify young viewers, as they caused older viewers to jump in their seats during screening.

While kids will respond to the jokes and magical tricks that keep this sad film afloat, grown-ups will be busy drawing parallels between Voldemort’s fear-mongering dictatorship, intent on flushing of “mudbloods” and muggles from the wizarding world, and those of Nazi Germany and Communist Cambodia.

Perhaps that’s why Hermione (Emma Watson), a muggle, plays such a heightened role in this film, which for once opens not with a Potter sequence, but her own. Surely one of the best female role models to appear in a multi-million dollar Hollywood juggernaut, Hermione doesn’t have to bear any flesh, seduce any men, or otherwise use feminine guiles to save the day. Instead, her sensibility and book smarts protect Potter over and over again. “We wouldn’t last two seconds without her,” says Ron toward the beginning of the film. When faced with following Ron, her teenage love, or helping Potter on his quest, she chooses Potter, her decision flying in the face of the typical overemotional female lead.

Potter and Hermione dominate the film, as they not only evade Voldemort’s henchmen, but also seek and destroy the horcruxes. Devotees to the book may be surprised that the film focuses so much on the locket horcrux (Potter fans recognize each horcrux is a key to Voldemort’s immortality), which has the magical property of turning its wearer into a huge jerk, at the expense of the other horcruxes and the new mystery of the Deathly Hallows. Devotees to the films may be pleased to see sets other than Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic are in play. Director David Yates turns barren location shots in Britain and Wales into backdrops as eerie and mystical as the overstuffed interiors so typical of the Potter series.

In interviews, Yates has said he intended the first half of the finale to be melancholic and character driven, while the second promises even more action (in 3D, of course) centering around the final showdown between Voldemort and Potter at Hogwarts. That shouldn’t give anyone license to skip this excellent addition to the Potter cannon though. There are just too many secrets revealed. •

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

Dir. David Yates; writ. Steve Kloves (based on the novel by JK Rowling); feat. Ralph Fiennes, Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson (PG-13)

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