*This review contains spoilers
I'm not what you would call a "Harry Potter Fanatic." I've never read any of the books and have only seen each movie once. In fact, I hadn't even seen any of them until last summer when I caught up on the previous 5 when The Half-Blood Prince came out in theaters. By the time I was all caught up, The Half Blood Prince was out of theaters making Deathly Hallows my first theatrical experience for the franchise. In a way, I'm kind of glad I waited until now to see one of these movies in the theaters because Deathly Hallows is the best Harry Potter movie so far and as of right now, one of my top 3 favorite movies of 2010. It's quite a feat for any movie to be this good, but it's simply astounding that this is the 7th movie in a major franchise.
I envy kids who grew up watching these movies. As each one came out, the themes kept getting darker and darker, perfectly matching the ages of the fans who were most likely to see the film. (I understand this probably also holds true for the books but since I haven't read any, I can't speak on them. Let's just say that I agree J.K Rowling is a genius for creating these stories.) I was a little too old when the first movie came out and I wrongly brushed it aside as childish fantasy nonsense. While I do admit the first couple films are not exactly deep like the latter half of the series, they were still surprisingly entertaining. They are also essential elements to the arc of the entire series. Everything that comes before The Deathly Hallows helps setup the emotional core of this film. It's something rarely accomplished in a long running series and the filmmakers should be rightfully applauded for it.
The one thing that struck me the most about this film was the way it was shot. Everything has a sort of gritty look to it. There is very little Hollywood slick on display and most of the action scenes use the "Bourne hand-held" camera style to very positive results. It helps pull a movie about a young wizard trying to defeat an evil sorcerer down to reality. This also has the added effect of making everything seem much more dangerous. These characters are no longer children and you can sense the actual danger they are in. By leaving behind the polished look of the earlier films, it helps give it a more adult feel, making it seem like any of these characters (aside from our main three of course) could fall at any minute.
Speaking of death, there is a lot of it in this film. One thing that I sort of had a hard time dealing with was the fact that a few of the major deaths occur off-screen. We only hear about the deaths instead of actually seeing them. I would have thought that characters such as The Minster of Magic (Bill Nighy) and Alastor (Brandan Gleeson) would have been given better treatment. I understand that these movies are to be told through the viewpoint of Harry Potter so it almost makes more sense to hear about the death the same way Potter would, but since we see other scenes that don't involve him, it was an odd choice to me. I can respect it though as it forces the audience to pay attention, something I always hope for in a movie.
But the most punishing death of all was that of the little house-elf, Dobby. I believe this is only Dobby's second appearance in the film series. He first reached almost Jar-Jar Binks levels of annoyance in The Chamber of Secrets, though I always had a soft spot for him due to his sad demeanor and low self-esteem. Luckily, they completely redeem the character this time around. They make him the emotional core of the movie's climax only to have it all taken away so fast due to Bellatrix's knife. Dobby's last lines about being happy to be with friends, as he lay dying in Harry's arms, actually made me cry. Normally I would be angered at a movie for making me cry at the death of a fictional CGI house-elf, but I was completely blown away at how perfectly they nailed that scene. My only complaint is that the movie then had one scene too many. I understand they need to get people pumped for next year's Part 2, but if the movie ended on the burial scene at the beach, I'm pretty sure I would have stood up and clapped (while stealthily wiping away tears from my eyes).
It's been said in pretty much every review written about the Harry Potter series, but the filmmakers really lucked out that the core cast (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint) have grown into good actors. Rupert is finally given some heavy lifting to do in this movie and is able to do so in a way I didn't think he would be able to do. He is still excellent at the occasional (and much needed) comic relief but his character gets a welcome layer added to him. Daniel and Emma are also given lots more to do (dramatically speaking) and play every scene perfectly. The silent scene of Harry getting Hermione to dance only to have them resume their despair once the song is over is an excellent example of how these young kids have grown into great actors. It's going to be really interesting to see how they fare outside of the Harry Potter Universe.
It's amazing how large the cast of the Harry Potter movies has become. They bring so many characters from previous films back, though some for simple one-line cameos. I found myself going through the metaphorical search database in my head every so often, trying to place where I've seen this character before. As I stated earlier, I've only seen each movie once, but luckily the movies have such memorable characters that I never had a problem identifying an important character. This was also due to the almost unbelievable feat of the series keeping the same actors for most of the cast (save for one actor dying, which I guess is understandable).
This movie sets up the finale perfectly as it left me wanting the second half to start right away. It seems that while this movie took a wonderfully slow approach to storytelling (as a way to build the characters up in ways the series hasn't done before), next year's finale will be an all out battle. The Deathly Hallows: Part 1, as a standalone film, is great. As the penultimate entry in the epic Harry Potter series, it's a masterpiece. These movies will be talked about for years to come the same way people talk up the original Star Wars trilogy as being the defining pop culture series for a generation. Is it July 15th, 2011 yet?