Please Note: The stills used here are taken from the DVD editions included in the Ultimate Edition, not the main Blu-ray discs under review.
Had I known that the Harry Potter series was going to end up here, in a dark and challenging world where life is not all magic spells and problems dispensed with a wave of a wand, I'd have probably gotten on board and read the books when they were coming out like everyone else. I had no idea that the tone of the material was going to age with Harry and his friends, that we would go through the difficult periods of adolescence, including awkward growth spurts and fumbled first loves. It's rather ingenious, really. If you started reading the Harry Potter novels at an age near Harry's, you'd grow up together.
I got into Harry Potter thanks to the movies, and while the series was never perfect--it didn't gel into inclusive moviemaking until the third installment; the sixth film, The Half-Blood Prince, stiffed--I looked forward to each new release even as I feared they wouldn't stick the landing. Thankfully, this turned out not to be the case, and I'd even go so far as to say the two-part Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is in contention as the best finish for any multi-film franchise ever. It does what very few big-budget series manage to do: it saves the best for last.
I covered both films at length upon their theatrical release. (Part 1 here, Part 2 over here.) My feelings about them pretty much stand. The first part is a lot of set-up, a slow burn as the full effects of the curse that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has inherited weighs on him and his friends. An early attack by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his minions has left many of Harry's allies dead and wounded, and it's forced Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) into hiding even as they continue to carry out their mission. They must find all the Horcruxes, mystical objects that contain pieces of Voldemort's soul, secreted away presumably to protect them. Well, the secret is out, and that plan backfired.
But this half is less about destroying evil than it is about recognizing the dark places in oneself. Stranded in the wilderness, the teens must wrestle with their own doubt, fear, and anger. Their anxieties are reflected in the outer world by Voldemort's increased influence. Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) has taken over Hogwarts, while the dark lord has also gotten a few of his people into the magic council. This has turned the mystical realm into an oppressive, near-fascist state, where people are scared to stand up for fear they'd be knocked back down. The trio of teens will also have illusions shattered as more is revealed about the secret life of the late wizard Dumbledore, a good lesson in the moral difficulties of a life of ambition and power and the downside of hero worship. The whole thing culminates in a showdown with Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), which shows the kids just how bad things can get. Torture, intimidation, prejudice--it's fairly heavy stuff, made all the heavier by the fact that The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 ends with heartbreak.
The Deathly Hallows, Part 2, then, is the kids getting it together and getting back in the fight. New clues give them leads on where the remaining three Horcruxes are sequestered. This allows for one of the entire series' most exciting action sequences: an underground battle in the goblin bank that quickly goes above ground. Way above ground! (Helena Bonham Carter doing an impression of Emma Watson when Hermione has disguised herself as Bellatrix, is also one of my favorite bits of acting in these movies.) The trail naturally leads back to Hogwarts, where Harry quickly wrests control from Snape and, now that he is fully exposed, attracts the attention of Voldemort. Armies amass, and the epic clash we've been waiting for finally occurs.
And one that looks way better on Blu-Ray than it did in the theater, I might add. Without the added 3D element, the dark screen is lifted from the movie and we can actually see all the fighting and special effects. (Sometimes too clearly: why are people falling and people in front of a fire still the most difficult effects to master?) There are many great sequences within the melee, including several designed to give certain characters their last rousing moments and the audience something to cheer about. Best of all, there is never a sense that victory is a foregone conclusion. The dark pallor that hangs over the first half, and the harsh escalation of tactics on Voldemort's part, are not rolled back to give us a bright and sunny climax. There is still much to fear here, and many things to dread.
It's kind of fitting that I saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone on Thanksgiving eleven years ago, and that I would spend this past Thanksgiving revisiting the final two films in the cycle. I wouldn't exactly call it coming full circle, but there is a sense of satisfaction of seeing the series come to fruition. I know my reaction to the first film was that it was pretty good, but that it could have been better. It had the wobbly legs of a complicated, well-known property trying too hard to please too many different audiences. By this stage in the game, director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves had enough experience with J.K. Rowlings' world to know where the balance lies, and also enough faith in every member of the audience to know that we've come this far and we are on board regardless of how we first came to Hogwarts. There is a freedom in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and it makes for smartly realized, nimbly executed finish.
Alternative audio options are French 5.1 (dubbed in Quebec) and Spanish 5.1, both Dolby Digital. Subtitles are available in both languages, as well as English Closed Captioning.
Physical bonuses include an envelope with four character cards, this time of Bellatrix, Voldemort, Ginny, and Neville. The 48-page hardback book Creating the World of Harry Potter: Growing Up collects together movie stills and on-set photos to show how much the actors have changed since 2001.
You also receive codes to access a digital "Ultraviolet" version of the movie. It's nice to get, even though the Ultraviolet program is the worst digital option. It's not really a download, because the copy you save to your computer requires the Flickster program to run, and so is not really compatible with your mobile devices (I watch my digital movies on my iPad). You can also stream the movies via an internet connection.
On-disc extras are on the main discs themselves, and there is also a bonus disc for each movie, both of which mainly focus on the ongoing documentary spread across all the Ultimate Editions, under the heading Creating the World of Harry Potter. The 47-minute 7th installment, "Story," is an excellent and extensive conversation with J.K. Rowling and screenwriter David Kloves about the back and forth between the books and the movies. The 50-minute 8th section, "Growing Up," catches us back up with the film series' main stars.
Both films also have the Warner Bros. Maximum Movie Mode, their excellent update of the audio commentary function, using both picture-in-picture and sidebar featurettes, called "Focus Points," to give a more interactive feel to the experience of watching the movie with enhanced commentary. If you take the time to watch any extras in this set, make it these.
For the Deathly Hallows, Part 1-specific bonuses, there are the following:
The Deathly Hallows, Part 2-specific bonuses are:
All extras are in high-definition.