07/14/2011 11:29 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2011

Harry Potter Review: Final Film Is Better Than The Book

We pick up right where we left off. Voldemort has broken into Dumbledore's grave and taken the Elder Wand. He lifts it into the air and sparks it like a bolt of lightning, vaguely evoking Harry's scar.

In this final installment of the "Harry Potter" series -- 10 years after the first film, and 14 years after we first came to know Harry Potter -- we find ourselves drawn back to motifs, like Harry's scar, often. The film is spotted with references to moments and characters who have defined it, almost like markers leading us through the final stretch, paying homage to everything that came before. Ollivander reminds us, as he first advised in Book One, that "the wand chooses the wizard," the giant spiders from Book Two still terrify us, and we even get to see Ron screaming like a little girl, just the way he used to before he hit puberty.

All this makes it easy to warm up to this film. But what this series was always about -- and what takes up the second half of Book Seven -- is beyond these nostalgic draws. It's about losing your innocence, as you literally watch Hogwarts, your childhood school, fall to pieces. In other words, it's always been leading up to the Battle at Hogwarts, where that whole good-vs.-evil problem could be hashed out. When it comes to executing this crucial component, Book Seven falters -- to be blunt, this was not J.K. Rowling's best work.

Looking back, its final battle scene is almost a blur. Wands were flying everywhere, spells were being shouted out left and right -- it was chaotic, and readers were just trying to get to the end. After all, the most prevalent question rumbling at the time was "Will Harry die?". Clearly, emotions were running high. Reading it was like a race to the finish, more of a desperate need to find out Harry's fate before anyone spilled the beans.

Closure, at that point, meant simply knowing what happened. Now, closure means fully understanding what happened. Seen in this context, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II" is a triumph of a finale, to both the film series and the entire "Harry Potter" franchise. What was muddled in the book comes into stunning focus with this final installment, and now we can really close the book on "Potter," so to speak.

In part, this is because "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I" absorbed most of the slow portions of the book, especially the trio's extended stay in a tent; but it's also that the sets, the special effects, the storyline and the acting in this movie come together tightly, forming a narrative, emotional, and visual thrill.

The pace is quick from the start, and within 10 minutes, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has a plan to find the next Horcrux, which must be destroyed if he is to kill Lord Voldemort. Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) set off for Gringotts Bank, which was built in a flight shed for the production and has remarkably convincing faux marble all over its lobby.

Hogwarts is next, and it's here that the movie really takes off. Everything is carefully paced in the battle that unfolds, a point the book did not quite grasp. The film takes a more streamlined approach, communicating the chaos in the background, but tempering it with loud/soft rhythms and visuals that are mind-blowing, in one instance literally (you'll know it when you see it).

It almost goes without saying that Radcliffe, Grint and Watson are at their best here -- they're all grown up, and there's no question anymore as to whether they're right for their roles. They are their roles. The mid-sized roles of Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) and Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) are also crucial to the film, and Neville in a few instances shines as the film's star. Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is portrayed accurately as an increasingly complicated figure, especially in the Room of Requirement -- when it comes down to him killing Harry, it's clear where his heart is.

The older cast, as always, is the backbone of the film. Ralph Fiennes expertly portrays a Voldemort growing more vulnerable, and yet somehow emboldened, with the the destruction of every Horcrux, each one hitting him like a spasm as he loses another sliver of his soul -- you can see a flicker pass through Fiennes' eyes every time, a sign of his unraveling. Voldemort in this final film is more disturbing than he's ever been, most so when he walks barefoot through the blood of the dead, shoving off attempts to help him, and clinging desperately to his snake, Nagini, who houses one last part of his soul. We don't just see him as an evil villain in this film, but as a sick, deranged madman.

This darkness is countered with that sense of unyielding hope, and strength in the face of adversity, we've also come to associate with "Harry Potter." If there is one line that stands out in the film, it's surely when the brilliant Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), who brings to life a platoon of stone soldiers to defend the castle, says, with obvious excitement, "I've always wanted to use that spell." Perfectly timed, and delivered.

Much of the movie feels deeply satisfying in that way. Ron and Hermione always wanted to kiss, and they do; Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and Harry always wanted to have a final battle, and they do; and we viewers always wanted to see this series end, and we do. In part you can trace the film's energy by looking at the color return to Voldemort's lips. That's the infusion of life that builds and builds, in Voldemort and in the viewers, until finally it must end.

To be sure, this is not a movie without flaws, and it makes its most notable fumble at the end. The book's saccharine, fan-fiction-y epilogue is included in the film, but instead of using older actors to play Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione as adults -- 19 years later, married with children -- the regular actors have been "aged" for the roles. This doesn't work out very well -- Hermione looks like a 25-year-old with a 12-year-old child. What has held this series together is a powerful tale of friendship, not a tale of their families from the future. If only it had ended a few minutes earlier, with Harry, Ron and Hermione standing together, having just saved the world. Let's pretend it did.