They were so young, and innocent, and little.
Daniel Radcliffe was 12 when "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" hit theaters in 2001, while his co-stars Emma Watson and Rupert Grint were 11 and 13. Through "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" (2002), "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (2004), "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (2005), "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (2007), "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" (2009), and now the first of two "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" installments, fans have watched these young actors grow up on-camera. They've come of age, and the franchise has matured right along with them.
The first three Potter films, based on the popular book series by J.K. Rowling, were rated PG. But "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" earned a PG-13 rating, as did the next installment. After a brief return to PG-land (no doubt in response to some complaining parents) with "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the final two films followed the same dark trajectory as Rowling's books. And that means PG-13 with a twist. While the films to this point have neatly fit into the fantasy-adventure mold, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1" comes closer to the mystery-thriller genre. It's darker in every single way: visually, emotionally, tonally, and metaphorically.
Hogwarts is nowhere to be seen in "Deathly Hallows," and Voldemort, the evil wizard whose name was not to be mentioned in early installments and who was shown only briefly over the course of the series, gets more no-nose air time this second-to-last film than ever before. In fact, a lot of things that had limited exposure get more air time, like his minions, the Dementors and Death Eaters. And some old familiars--like Dobby and Kreacher, who always reminded me a little of Gollum from "Lord of the Rings"--also get time in front of the camera.
Rowling drew liberally from many sources while crafting this series. You'll recognize Arthurian legend, Greek and Roman mythology, and especially references to Fascism. Young Harry Potter survives an attack by Lord Voldemort, who leads a force of wizards determined to keep wizard bloodlines from mingling with "muggles" or common humans. That, of course, echoes the "Master Race" obsession of Hitler. Harry's parents were part of a group who tried to stand up to Voldemort, and the series charts Harry's discovery by wizards as the chosen one who survived Voldemort's magic, and his subsequent education as a wizard-in-training at Hogwarts, where he meets good friends like Hermoine (Watson) and Ron (Grint). But the forces of evil have gradually been working to gain a foothold again, and each episode has seen an increase in conflict. Dumbledore, the beloved head of Hogwarts, died in the sixth installment. This time more people die. A Hogwarts' teacher is tortured and killed for maintaining that wizards and muggles can interbreed. And the Minister of Magic is killed, replaced by a government that is suddenly and subversively loyal to Voldemort. That makes Harry "Undesirable No. 1," and a wizard who's suddenly in need of protection more than ever before.
The first part of the film concerns the good wizards' attempts too get Harry to safety, because the Chosen One is their only hope for eventually combating the gigantic evil that Voldemort represents. Then it becomes largely a tale of Harry (Radcliffe), Hermoine (Watson), and Ron (Grint) on the lam, but also on a quest. They've been willed objects by the late Dumbledore, and those objects come into play as they try to solve the riddle of a missing locket, a repeating sign, and the legendary Deathly Hallows--three objects that possess the most powerful magic on Earth because they were conveyed by Death itself. It's simple, really: if they solve the riddle, they get the tools to defeat the Lord of Darkness, who has hidden parts of spirit inside horcruxes that the young wizards still must find and destroy.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1" is the scariest of the Potter films, in part because of its unrelenting structure. Patterned after horror-thrillers, the film deliberately goes for scare-related tension and pop-up terror. The cinematography and musical backdrop reinforce that emphasis in almost every frame. Always, there's the chance of evil knocking at the door. Or breaking it down. The dark-and-stormy-night palette is fortified by interior scenes that are droop-heavy with shadows. And cinematographer Eduoardo Serra uses more foreshortening and isolated figures in long shots to heighten the sense of loneliness--and one of the first rules of horror-thrillers is to get them alone and away from a crowd. There are considerably more "alone" scenes this outing--quiet moments where we see the characters alone with their thoughts, especially when the three friends are in the forest. If they were tiny again, it might play out like a wizard version of Hansel and Gretel, but Rowling's books change in tone to keep pace with her maturing characters, and the films follow her lead.
Gone are the Hogwarts' fun and games, or the rivalry between Gryffindor and Slitherin. The magic classes are behind them, and the only competition isn't for Quiddich honors. In this final installment, the kids are playing for keeps. How can they not, with an underlying theme of genocide bubbling to the surface? Besides, they're not really kids anymore.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1" should please Potter fans. In fact, they might even forgive Warner Brothers for making them wait until July 15, 2011 to see Part 2 in theaters because it prolongs the inevitable. When you've grown right alongside this bunch of young wizards, like the stars themselves you just don't want it to end.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1" is rated PG-13, but parents should know that there's really some intense stuff here--blood, included. At some point one of the three main characters just about has his arm ripped off, and if your child was frightened by the Dementors in earlier films, that poor kid is going to be afraid throughout much of this one. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1" is for adults and older children, really, or those young ones who've read the books and have some sense of what's coming. It may be the scariest, but it's also one of the strongest in the series. I'd give it an 8 out of 10.