Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 has a problem, and it’s a problem which most of the diehard Harry Potter fans who see it may not even notice. Screenwriter Steve Kloves will almost certainly get away with it, because by now a pretty large percentage of the people who show up to these movies are diehards by definition. Seven movies and seven books in this phenomenon has taken its place as a permanent fixture in our cultural consciousness. That means odds are at least fifty-one percent of the film’s audience will have read the books or memorized every detail of the previous movies and be able to tell you all there is to know about the origins of Regulus Arcturus Black. But for the rest of us, much of this first part of the Deathly Hallows is almost incomprehensible.
It’s a problem of technobabble. Technobable is a term coined to describe the overuse of technical jargon. In the past it’s been most often applied to things like the Star Trek franchise, when characters have prattled on so endlessly about the buttons they’re pushing, that it overshadows anything genuine or human the less techno-savvy members of the audience might have been able to latch on to. The most recent Star Trek incarnation strove to solve this problem by focusing on relationships rather than technology, and in the process created something that every audience member could buy into whether or not they’ve read the Star Fleet Technical Manual.
In Deathly Hallows maybe it’s more correct to call this a problem of Potterbabble. In much the same way Trek has in the past committed the sin of drowning its audience in meaningless technology chatter, Deathly Hallows is inexorably mired in the endless names and details and spells and trinkets of the Potter universe. It’s worse than simply mired in it really, much of the movie’s plot is built almost entirely on it. In the books that attention to detail is perhaps one of the story’s strengths, but if you haven’t read them or haven’t memorized every detail of the previous movies, then in this film it’s just a big muddle.
It’s no coincidence that the Harry Potter franchise’s best moments have all happened when they’ve focused squarely on something else. It’s for this very reason that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban or Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince are often regarded as the best of the franchise by those who aren’t dedicated Potterphiles. Those entries, more than the others, cut through the Potterbabble straight to the human element of JK Rowling’s stories. They focused on the emotion of them; a boy coming to the grips with the loss of his parents, or teenagers dealing with hormones run amok. It’s a huge disappointment to see that, as the franchise counts down to the end, it has reverted back to being something designed not so much as a film but as an homage to all the things people who have read the books already know.
But maybe this was unavoidable. Seven movies in, it’s as though the Harry Potter movies are finally collapsing under their own weight. They’ve avoided all the insider details for as long as they could, but now with everything coming to a head there’s just no way around the Potterbabble. By now you’re either on board or you're not, and director David Yates doesn’t care whether you even remember Dobby the House Elf exists, let alone what he’s all about. He’s going to use Dobby the House Elf, dammit. The casual fan, confused or not, will have to go with it. You won’t enjoy this movie as much as the guy sitting next to you dressed like Dumbledore, but you’ve invested too much time in these movies and characters to do anything other than sit there, ride it out, and trust that all of this makes sense to someone else.
If you’re able to hang in there through the Potterbabble, you’ll eventually be rewarded, because when Deathly Hallows settles in for real, character development it absolutely soars. In the film’s more intimate moments it becomes about three kids whom you’ve seen grow up on screen stepping into their own as adults. Those scenes anchor this movie and ask more of its actors than any Harry Potter movie ever has before. For the first time, they’re old enough and adult enough to handle it. All three, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson have grown into full fledged actors perfectly capable of carrying even the most emotional scene.
It’s those little interactions between them that kept me interested. Harry and Hermione’s dance together inside a tent, just when things seem like they’re at their worst, stuck with me after the credits rolled. The camaraderie between these people, their chemistry, their relationships, that’s what has always made the Harry Potter franchise work best on film. It’s a shame that Deathly Hallows doesn’t have more of it. When it stops for those things, when it makes time for them, this movie works on every conceivable level. When it doesn’t, those who aren’t already obsessed with the details of this franchise are forced to simply sit back, shut off their brains, and enjoy the special effects.
Luckily, visually at least, Deathly Hallows is as sharp as director David Yates' other Potter efforts. This is his third Harry Potter movie and by now he knows just what it takes to immerse your eyeballs in a world of witchcraft and wizardry. Even in a movie which visits none of the familiar Potter set pieces, like Hogwarts for instance, it still looks and feels like all the magic of a Potter movie is there, in every frame. Instead it’s a road movie in which our main characters end up traveling together, often isolated and alone. In the process things of gotten dark and, even though David Yates may lose some of his audience with confusing specifics of his story, he absolutely nails the film’s tone. Deathly Hallows is dire, desperate, and dreary. Much of it takes place in a world that seems almost emptied, as if it’s been sucked dry by evil. There’s enough in that to make the film good enough, even for the rest of us who have no idea what’s going on once the plot resorts to Potterbabble.
Good enough is just about what Deathly Hallows is, if you really look at it as a movie and not specifically a Harry Potter movie. The thing is, that forty-nine percent who haven’t memorized the inner workings of the Ministry of Magic just don’t care about what Dolores Umbridge has been up to, nor do we remember why Lucius Malfoy is lately very sweaty. Instead those casual fans are probably going to wonder why the Horcrux’s effect on the Potter kids seems like a direct rip-off of the One Ring from Lord of the Rings. They’re going to think it’s kind of lame that the story has suddenly resorted to the somewhat worn out Nazi template as a model for Voldemort’s evil empire. That 49% has seen all the movies, but hasn’t memorized the names of every Grindelwald and Weasley. Before this, Harry Potter made an effort to include casual fans in the fun anyway, but now at the end, it seems clear these last two movies are going to be made almost exclusively for serious Potter lovers. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 that philosophy hasn’t resulted in great filmmaking, but by now Harry Potter has amassed so many truly dedicated fans that it doesn’t matter, because they won’t care.
Looking for an alternate opinion? Read Katey's 4 star review of The Deathly Hallows right here.