Scott Bowles, USA TODAY
Far from Hogwarts and closer to his final confrontation with evil Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter's cinematic days are numbered.
Fitting, then, that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows serves as the opening act of the boy wizard's adieu (Part 2 arrives next summer). Menacing and meditative, Hallows is arguably the best installment of the planned eight-film franchise, though audiences who haven't kept up with previous chapters will be hopelessly lost.
Not that the film is worried about your memory. If anything, director David Yates hopes to test it. Hallows features a few pop quizzes: What creature sat in the corner the first time Harry went to see professor Remus Lupin? What were the last words Albus Dumbledore spoke to Lupin and Minister Kingsley Shacklebolt? If you can't answer either question, you may want to bone up on your reading or viewing materials; the movie isn't waiting for you.
It could all play as fanboy fodder, an inside joke among diehards. But Potter films have evolved into deft storytelling. Gone are the wide, lingering shots of the magic school Hogwarts and airborne Quidditch matches. In their place, Yates uses close-ups of his young stars, who have over the past decade learned to act through expression alone.
Not that the film has lost its sense of childhood fantasy. Kids still fly around on broomsticks.
Hallows takes the baton from last year's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, casting our hero (Daniel Radcliffe) and his conjuring pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) further from Hogwarts and into the lair of Lord Voldemort (played to the hissable hilt by Ralph Fiennes). The children continue their search of Horcruxes, the mysterious objects that give Voldemort his immortality.
Like The Empire Strikes Back or Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Hallows is an alley-oop of a film, a set-up for an easy slam-dunk of a finale. And the movie - the entire series, for that matter - suffers a loss of some suspense with its strict (some would say slavish) adherence to Rowling's books.
But there's a reason Hallows sold 8.3 million copies in its first 24 hours in the USA. And there's no denying the chemistry between Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, who flexes more emotional muscle than any child in the franchise to date. Their rapport feels natural, the kind that comes from spending hours in each other's trailers.
The film continues Potter's reputation as a visual feast, especially when Voldemort calls his minions (and snake) to the table.
Warner Bros. made headlines last month with its decision not to convert the movie into 3-D. The movie suffers none the more for it, and makes a compelling case that 3-D is a limited tool at best.
Even at 21/2 hours, Hallows trims much of the emotional turmoil that became the novel's fulcrum. And some critics and bloggers have groused that the studio will cash in by cleaving the final story. They are absolutely right.
But so what? We have watched Harry (and, by proxy, Radcliffe) and his schoolmates sprout from children to young adults. They are taller. Their voices have dropped. They think of sex, solitude and death.
In a matter of months, Potter will empty the nest. There's nothing wrong with an extended farewell.