Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I

Harry Casts a Spell 

How Deathly Hallows won the heart of this Potter skeptic.

(Warner Bros.): the mere title fills the heart of a non-Potter-lover with preemptive dread. Chapters of a long-running film franchise that exist in temporal limbo, like the one-generation-too-late prequels to the Star Wars series, often feel static and irrelevant. In the case of this adaptation of the last of J.K. Rowlings' Potter novels, the book was so weighty it had to be divided into two movies. And yet Harry Potter 7A, as it's been dubbed by my colleague Dan Kois, was one of my favorite Harry Potter movies so far, precisely because it takes a break from the magic-and-monster-crammed busyness of its predecessors.

For much of this movie, the three young protagonists of the saga—Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson)—exist in suspended animation, camped out on a series of picturesque British heaths as they flee the Death Eaters, minions of Harry's archrival Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). That very immobility gives the movie a chance to slow down and concentrate on the relationship among these three young people, whom we've watched grow up as both actors and characters since the first Potter movie in 2001.

David Yates—who directed this and the previous two Harry Potters and also helmed the final chapter, due in summer, 2011—has established a consistent and pleasing, if not wildly innovative, style: a color palette of muted blues and grays, a rhythm that alternates soothingly between frenetic battle sequences and tea-sipping exposition. Yet, if the cinematic Harry Potters have an auteur, it's the production designer Stuart Craig, who has worked on all seven of the movies, building up a stunningly detailed and sui generis universe: the Art Deco-inspired, vaguely fascistic Ministry of Magic, the depressingly wallpapered safe houses, the newspapers with photographs that move. You don't have to follow every intricacy of the fantasy plot—who is in possession of what wand, which all-powerful sword is hidden beneath which frozen river—in order to sense that you're in a different, magical place.

If you want to follow every intricacy of the fantasy plot, you're probably already enough of a Potterhead to set it up better than I can. Harry, having lost his longtime mentor, Albus Dumbledore, during a confrontation with Voldemort cronies, finds himself for the first time in his young life without a wise adult to guide him in the use of his prodigious powers. Meanwhile, Voldemort has taken over the Ministry of Magic and instituted a reign of terror, rounding up dissidents and broadcasting propaganda about the dangers posed by Muggles (people without magical powers) and Mudbloods (wizards born to Muggles or born of mixed Muggle-wizard ancestry). Rather than holing up at Hogwarts, Harry, Hermione, and Ron spend the majority of the movie on the run, and the sexual tension that builds among the three of them recalls—in a good way—the hothouse adolescent passions of the Twilight movies. A couple of films ago, it was a big deal when Harry went in for his first chaste kiss; now, we get a jealous Ron fantasizing about Harry and Hermione groping each other, enveloped by a swirling mist that barely covers their naughty bits.

Though the supporting cast is, as usual, piled to the rafters with top-flight British and Irish actors (Alan Rickman, Brendan Gleeson, Imelda Staunton, Helena Bonham Carter, and new additions Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans), this installment is all about the grown-up kids.* The three young leads—especially Emma Watson, who can do more with a still face than any actress her age—are all terrific, though it's possible that, like the actors who played hobbits in the Lord of the Rings movies, they'll find these iconic roles difficult to outgrow.

But ultimately, this movie's not for Muggles like me—it's for the millions and millions of Harry Potter fans who, quibbles aside, will welcome its arrival as a blessed event. It's evidence of how happily critic-proof these movies are that even the Warner Bros. logo—rendered in what looked to be rusting iron—was applauded when it appeared on the screen. After the movie, as the credits began to roll (to Alexandre Desplat's conventional but nonetheless transporting score), the girl on my left—perhaps 15 or 16—whispered tearfully to her companion: "So good. God, I can't wait for July." That's all the critical analysis this movie needs.