Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1 | Adventure/Fantasy | rated PG-13 (A,V) | starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Feinnes, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Bill Nighy | directed by David Yates | 2:26 mins

After the tragic events at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Voldemort’s army is stronger than ever. With the now fully-embodied dark lord plotting to kill Harry Potter, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) leave their families to trek across the countryside in search of the horcruxes that legend has it contain Voldemort’s soul and only weakness.

If Half Blood Prince was the movie that turned the formula of the Harry Potter franchise on it’s head, then Deathly Hallows, part 1 is the movie that shattered it to pieces. At this point in the series, it’s catering to fans only. Hogwarts school of magic is gone and now our mystery solving trio is on the run out in the world with Death Eaters and Voldemort’s followers around every corner. Like the books that inspired them, Deathly Hallows fulfills the long-ago promise that this franchise would take a decidedly darker and more adult turn with it’s maturing fans. The more somber tone is set early on with the kids leaving their parents to set out on the road and Voldemort sicking his pet snake on a dead Hogwarts teacher. It’s all as big and different and full of all the irreversible story turns that a finale should have. But as the title says, it’s still only half the story.

Pleading ignorant to details of the book series, my only experience with J.K. Rowling’s Potter Universe has been through these films. Free from the disappointment that inevitably comes with a movie adaptation, it has been fun combing through the storyline here, each movie putting a piece of the puzzle together and continuing to develop this wildly imaginative world of spells and witchcraft. Rowling’s framework is cemented in literary lore and for their part the movies haven’t screwed up the colossal task of bringing the universe to life, in the process making a movie series unlike any other. A continuing story that spans 8 movies.

Having conquered the teen angst element of the Potter series with the last film, David Yates proves to be the best filmmaker to infuse these spectacular fantasies with the warm emotional core Harry, Hermione and Ron’s friendship should have – complete with a sweet dance between Harry and Hermione and a realization of Ron’s insecurity over often playing 2nd fiddle to the chosen one. Like the rest of his Potter movies, he’s able to bring out the socially conscious satire and tell them through the metaphorical prism of magic. We had zero tolerance school bureaucracy, love potions and performance enhancers and in Hallows the bar has been raised considerably, with the new order of magic seeking to put muggles in their place below them and conducting a Nazi-like inquisition to filter out the half-blood magicians from the pure bloods.

But Yates also proves capable with the big action set pieces. Deathly Hallows has the biggest and most well staged since Chamber of Secrets.  Forgive me for not being able to say if Yates is true to the source material (though I know many fans were livid, in particular, with Half Blood Prince’s edits), but judging the movies as movies, Yates’ films are as clever and creative as anything out there. A rich mid-film set piece in which the trio sneak into the Ministry of Magic using a potion to disguise themselves has everything that is great about this series all at once. It’s imaginative, exciting, funny, scary and socially conscious.

Deathly Hallows is visually absorbing. Taking us across the landscape of the Potter universe in a way bigger than ever, most exciting is the atmospheric trip into the town where Harry was born and his parents died. But even as a chase movie it still has all the moving puzzle pieces of a good Potter mystery, some more predictable than others. Now 8 films in, it proves to have an endless supply of creative potions up it’s sleeve.

This is a big, long, monster of a movie. It starts with a bang, then gets winded, dragging under the weight of all the narrative ground it has to cover through the middle, but ultimately comes out another rich Potter adventure with a forbodding cliffhanger (which Yates doesn’t slam home as triumphantly as I would have liked) and, amazingly enough, a genuine emotional sequence involving a puppet or CGI character.  As the title suggests Hallows is half a movie and by itself feels incomplete and anti-climactic. It has several great individual sequences, but left me unsatisfied and only to wonder if we won’t have a true picture of the finale until part 2. So far it looks to be a fitting closing chapter on this generation’s seminole re-invented tale of witches and wizards. To be continued…