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Based largely around the propulsive action of the Battle of Hogwarts, and lending just enough time to nostalgia without getting bogged down in history, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 may be the best Potter film yet, and in some ways even improves on the book. By the time it gathers all the main players back at the familiar castle the film is nonstop adventure, and while the movies will always lack some of the nuance and sparkle of J.K. Rowling's writing, the sterling action sequences and gorgeous cinematography nearly make up for it. With just enough punches of emotion and humor to make it a Harry Potter film, Deathly Hallows Part 2 is a well-paced and appropriately grand finale to this enormous franchise.
The action kicks off exactly where we left it, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, finally getting to really show off here) stealing the all-powerful Elder Wand from Dumbledore's tomb while Harry, Ron and Hermione take refuge at Bill Weasley's seaside cottage. Their subsequent adventures over at the goblin-run Gringotts bank is one last holdover from the more episodic previous film, entertaining (especially Helena Bonham Carter's appearance as Hermione in disguise as Bellatrix Lestrange) but not moving the action forward all that much. Harry is still on a mission to find Horcruxes, the objects in which Voldemort has hidden pieces of his soul and which must be destroyed before he can take on the task of defeating the dark wizard himself. Lucky for us he realizes the remaining two are at Hogwarts, and soon he, Hermione and Ron are sneaking into the castle and bringing the battle back home.
All the familiar faces are there, from Harry's old flame Cho Chang (Katie Leung) to Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) to the imperious Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), who's now the heroic face of Hogwarts and gets several great moments to prove it. As Harry seeks out the remaining Horcruxes and Voldemort, with his army of Death Eaters, descends upon the castle to stop him, a controlled chaos emerges; huge spiders, werewolves and giants are only among the beasts that lay waste to Hogwarts, while stone soldiers and many wizards fight to protect it. Director David Yates controls it all remarkably well, cross-cutting the many subplots with fierce fighting scenes, and even more impressively the 3D never makes the action murky, even though most of these scenes take place at night. It's still debatable that the Harry Potter world needed to be viewed in the third dimension, but at least it doesn't actively detract from it.
Though Deathly Hallows Part 2 is as true to the novel as most of the others, it makes some key changes that tighten up the narrative and give some characters bigger moments, including a scene where Harry confronts Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) in the Great Hall and a beefier version of Neville (Matthew Lewis) emerging as a hero. When Ron and Hermione revisit the Chamber of Secrets to retrieve a basilisk fang and finally share a climactic kiss, we actually see it this time, and even Snape's complicated flashback late in the movie is filmed efficiently and beautifully so that it feels essential. Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, after being merely serviceable in the previous efforts, steps up significantly in some of the hugely emotional later scenes, and the easy rapport between him, Emma Watson as Hermione and Rupert Grint as Ron gives the film both moments of humor and great significance amid the clanging action.
Snape's flashback is the only moment where old footage from the earlier films is actually used, but their legacy is everywhere, from the occasional recurrence of the familiar tinkling "Hedwig's Theme" to a brief glimpse of Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney to even the familiar sight of a bunch of Hogwarts kids in uniform cheering in delight. Yates and his marvelous production team weave into Hogwarts the physical tokens of childhood that, by waging war inside their school, Harry and company are leaving for good. It's a bittersweet undertone in a movie that's already packed with violence, heartbreak and regret, but one moviegoers can easily identify with as they say goodbye to the decade-long series. Deathly Hallows Part 2 isn't just a proper sendoff, but maybe the best argument for adapting these books to film in the first place.