Harry Potter and the Bad Camping Trip
There is an inherent challenge in evaluating a film like this. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is the seventh of eight entries in the series of Harry Potter adaptations. But unlike the previous six films, which each adapted an entire novel that had its own beginning, middle, and end, Deathly Hallows Part 1 represents just the first half of a novel. Thus, inevitably, the movie abruptly ends in the middle of a story. Deathly Hallows Part 1 is a lot of set up and not a lot of payoff.
(This choice to break the final segment into two movies has been hugely influential on some of the highest grossing movies ever — a trend that is probably for the worse for cinema writ large. Twilight, Hunger Games, and Avengers all used this structure. Its success also probably influenced The Hobbit, Dune, the upcoming Spider-Verse sequels, the upcoming Wicked movies, and possibly even the release pattern for the Avatar sequels.)
The question, then is how much do we hold its incomplete nature against the film? For me, the answer is that I do not hold it against the movie very much at all. Certainly it’s a slightly less satisfying film as a standalone, but it’s very fun for its duration, and it does a great job of building excitement and tension for the grand finale. The ending point of the story feels a bit arbitrary: The credits start rolling at the conclusion of two plot threads: the death and burial of Dobby, and Voldemort finding the Elder Wand. You can squint and see some parallels that might have made them appealing twin cliffhangers: both hero and villain confront grave-sites for different purposes, each with divergent views of death.
I’ve heard the take that the first Deathly Hallows is “too much plot,” and I’ve also that it’s “almost no plot,” and I think either claim can be true, depending how you’re using the word. If you mean “plot” in the sense of progression of the narrative and change to the status quo, it is a very light movie. The Harry-Ron-Hermione trio poke around in the dark to try and figure out how to destroy Horcruxes: they rob the increasingly-fascist Ministry of Magic, wander around the woods, explore Harry’s hometown, and confront Luna’s dad. At each place, they learn a little but get inevitably attacked by evil creatures.
The movie is an excellent work adaptation, at least in the sense of elevating the source material to something cinematic. Many Harry Potter fans hate the first half of the Deathly Hallows book, since it’s a slow, piecemeal slog to set up the epic finale. But adapter Steve Kloves — the attributed screenwriter to all of the Harry Potter films except Order of the Phoenix — efficiently condenses the material into moody montages as character moments. (Count me as a fan of anything that does nothing but flesh out tone and character — stuff like Harry and Hermione’s spontaneous dance.)
Yet there’s also a lot of meat on these bones in terms of laying out threads and stakes and lore. We learn a lot about wands and Hallows and Horcruxes and all sorts of fantasy nonsense that’s important to understand for the finale to make sense. There is quite a bit of “plot” if you view it as any sort of world-expanding incident occurring, even if said incidents are little morsels for a bigger pie to be delivered in Part 8.
David Yates, the directorial steward of the series since Order of the Phoenix, gives his most impressive effort yet. His visual instincts are still a bit too steely and underlit, but he constructs some really gripping visuals. The peak of them is undoubtedly the faux-silhouette (a la Prince Achmed) animation Tale of the Three Brothers segment near the end of the film, an elegant way to introduce the “Deathly Hallows” concept. I also like the lonely woods shots, the snowy visit to Godric’s Hollow, the glowing white doe, and several others.
My biggest complaint with Deathly Hallows Part 1 is the near-absence of Hogwarts. There are thematic reasons Harry, Ron, and Hermione avoid the castle (in addition to the obvious narrative ones) as they set out on their own as adults for the first time, but it still feels like the movie has lost a bit of its soul by ditching the iconic setting that provided the framework of the previous six stories.
(Also, the prevalence of Polyjuice Potion as a story device makes me want to pull my hair out. It should have remained a one-book gimmick that the series quickly forgot about, like Time-Turners.)
But overall, this is an extremely well-made movie: well-acted, appropriately grand and evocative in its visual, somber and contemplative in a way that no other film in the series is but suits the near-apocalyptic world well, gutting, and dark.