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IMAGE: Potter kids
Jaap Buitendijk
Casting three unknown kids, only one of whom had any acting experience, was a big risk that paid off big for the "Harry Potter" films.
TODAY contributor
updated 7/7/2011 4:27:45 PM ET 2011-07-07T20:27:45

“It All Ends,” the posters for the final "Harry Potter" film solemnly promise. And yes, if that sounds more like a funeral invite or a threat than a marketing come-on, then you’re not alone in thinking so.

You probably read all the books and made your peace with them coming to a close, comforting yourself with, “Well, they’re still not done making the movies.” But now it’s finally time to say goodbye to the flesh-and-blood film representations of the characters you’ve grown to love. Don’t worry. It’s OK if you’re getting a little watery-eyed thinking about it. That means the movies did their job, and that what you’re reading right now is something of a eulogy.

Video: Watch the 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2' trailer (on this page)

They grow up so fast, those little wizards. They accumulate adult-strength levels of wizarding skill, vanquish the most evil, blackened, murderous entity known to wizard-kind and, then, go off to live happily ever after. At least that’s how it goes down in the final pages of J.K. Rowling’s extra-large finale, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” And, it can be safely assumed that when the final film unspools on July 15, there’ll be nothing to contradict what already went out in print.

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Story: Need a 'Potter' refresher? Seven films in six minutes

Of course, that’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of surprises along the way during a decade’s worth of moviemaking. Think about it: What other mega-successful film series gets better over time instead of worse? More complex instead of less? Darker and more daring instead of dumber? Bolder instead of boring?

Slideshow: 'Harry Potter' world premiere (on this page)

“Lord of the Rings” and ... what else exactly? The last three “Star Wars” prequels? Nope. The Indiana Jones saga? Wrong. Those disappointments should learn from the Potter model because in its example is the template for not screwing it all up.

There wasn’t much room for long-term hope in 2001 and 2002 when director Chris Columbus brought “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” as well as “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” to the screen. The end results were competently executed movies about kids made mostly for kids. He was the right choice to hook the family audience into the saga, but his directorial style wasn’t, and has never been, about complication. This was still the man behind “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Home Alone,” entertaining mass-market movies untroubled by doubt, despair, demons or the worst nightmare of all, the emotional quicksand of middle to late adolescence. Different perspectives were going to be needed if the upcoming films wanted to be about something deeper than Quidditch.

Story: Harry Potter is entertainment champ of world

And that’s when the series’ producers performed some magic of their own: They went way outside the box and brought in Alfonso Cuaron, the man who’d just directed the very adult, very art-house-oriented “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” The abrupt shift in tone of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” put both film critics and general audiences on notice: In a climate where huge amounts of money were at stake and fan expectations were as demanding and unyielding as anything George Lucas could ever face, the message became “Expect the unexpected ... sort of.”

Gallery: Meet the characters of 'Harry Potter' (on this page)

In other words, fans got what they requested, a sincere faithfulness to the books they loved, and maybe something they didn’t even know they wanted: a departure from the same loud reliance on unchanging characters, least-resistance plot development and relentless, repetitive action beats that mark most “event” movies. Although the series maintained a very healthy relationship with frenetic action and special effects, it also rightly found its center in the more brooding moments of the teenage identity crises that permeate the Potter series. Respected directors such as Mike Newell (“Donnie Brasco,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) and finally David Yates, who helmed the final four films, helped the franchise grow and grow up, releasing new installments that got better as the world got weirder and more complex. How many mainstream film series can claim to have become more ambitious, more artistically satisfying and more emotionally powerful as sequel four, five or six rolled around? Don’t say “The Fast and the Furious.”

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It didn’t hurt at all that the films were populated with some of the best adult actors of our time playing the beloved Hogwarts staff and the villainous threats to them all. And most important, for the child leads, the creative team rolled three dice and each one came up a winner. Of the three — Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint — only Radcliffe had done any professional acting prior to the first movie’s shoot. So it could have gone any number of ways: awkward teenage looks, acting talent hitting a plateau, personal lives run amok like scores of other child stars. And none of it came to pass. That the three young actors moved together like a precisely engineered machine on screen and kept their noses clean off screen is, by normal, Lindsay Lohan-skewed betting odds on young actor behavior, something of a miracle.

Video: Watch Hermione grow up before your eyes

It's one thing to watch an actor grow up on screen in a variety of roles, testing and searching for their comfort zones; it’s another to watch them evolve as the same character over eight films. That alter ego becomes a permanent tattoo for the kid behind the character and it bonds audiences to the actor in a way usually only seen on very long-running TV shows. If you’re 20 now, then you grew up with the Potter kids. They were you, only magical. If you’re 50, they were your substitute children, the ones that didn’t fail algebra, sass back or come this close to answering a casting call for “16 and Pregnant.”

Video: See redheaded Ron grow up in a minute

That’s why saying goodbye is hard. Sure there’s that ending (spoiler alert if you haven’t read the books and don’t know another living soul who has) set in the blissful future as Harry, Hermione and Ron send their own kids off to Hogwarts, but what about the peaceful interim? What about after that? Can’t they grow older with us? Why does this have to be goodbye?

Video: Emma Watson: I’ll really miss Hermione

Well, apparently, now that you’re begging for it — and a lot of people are — it doesn’t. J.K. Rowling is launching Pottermore.com. It’s a website that promises more Harry information and a still-mysterious interactive element. It got more than a million hits in its first week up as a teaser site (the official launch happens this fall) and the author herself has also said that she’s not hating the idea of future Potter books. And that’ll mean more movies.

In other words, “It All Ends” isn’t exactly true. So don’t say goodbye just yet. Make that, “Until we meet again.”

Dave White is a film critic for Movies.com

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Watch the 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2' trailer

Photos: 'Harry Potter' world premiere

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  1. Daniel Radcliffe

    Daniel Radcliffe walks the red carpet at the "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" premiere at London's Trafalgar Square on Thursday, July 7. The actor has starred in all eight films since being cast at age 11. He recently revealed he's given up alcohol after abusing it while making the film series. (Ian Gavan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Emma Watson

    Hermione Granger is all grown up. Emma Watson dazzled in a grey Oscar De La Renta ruffled gown at the world premiere. She's believed to be planning to study at Oxford University now that the film series is finished. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Rupert Grint

    Rupert Grint played Ron Weasley, Harry and Hermione's pal, in the series. His large redheaded family also played an important role in the saga. (Ian Gavan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. J.K. Rowling

    J.K. Rowling went from a single mother on welfare to one of the world's richest women thanks to authoring the Potter book series. (Ian Gavan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Helena Bonham Carter

    Helena Bonham Carter plays Bellatrix Lestrange, one of evil Voldemort's cohorts, in the films. (Ian Gavan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Alan Rickman

    Alan Rickman plays Severus Snape in the series, a pivotal character whose motives may not always be what they seem. (Ian Gavan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. One big party

    Crowds fill Trafalgar Square in London hoping to see the "Potter" stars. Some waited for days in a downpour and with limited bathroom facilities to watch the events unfold. (Joel Ryan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Tom Felton

    Tom Felton plays Draco Malfoy, Harry's school nemesis, in the films. He recently told the Daily Mail that the young cast members know they weren't chosen for acting skill, but because they resembled the characters Rowling created. (Ian Gavan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Carrying on

    A fan holds up a placard playing off the famed World War II admonition "Keep Calm and Carry On." (Toby Melville / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Robbie Coltrane

    Robbie Coltrane plays the gentle giant Hagrid, who helps Harry, Hermione and Ron while they're at Hogwarts. (Ian Gavan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. James and Oliver Phelps

    Twin actors James and Oliver Phelps play twins Fred and George Weasley in the film series. They're identical, but Oliver has a mole on the right side of his neck and James does not. (Ian Gavan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Natalia Tena

    Natalia Tena plays Nymphadora Tonks in the films. Her character marries and has a son during the series. (Ian Gavan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Helen McCrory

    Helen McCrory plays Narcissa Malfoy. She originally cast as Narcissa's sister, Bellatrix Lestrange, but due to pregnancy had to give that role to Helena Bonham Carter. (Ian Gavan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Bonnie Wright

    Bonnie Wright plays the character most young female "Potter" readers envy most -- Ginny Weasley, who eventually weds Harry. (Ian Gavan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Flying the colors

    Harry Potter fans clutch books they're hoping to have autographed. Their faces are painted in scarlet and gold, the colors of Gryffindor, Harry's house at Hogwarts. (Joel Ryan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Clemence Poesy

    Clemence Poesy plays Fleur Delacour, and in the film series, she weds Ron's brother, Bill. (Dave M. Benett / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Jamie Campbell Bower

    Jamie Campbell Bower plays a young Gellert Grindelwald in the last two films. The actor also appears in another enormously popular film franchise, the "Twilight" series. (Dave M. Benett / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Warrick Davis and family

    Warrick Davis poses with his family on the red carpet. He plays both Griphook and Flitwick in the series, and also worked as a casting agent to find additional little people to play goblins in the films. He also starred in "Willow," and plays an Ewok in the "Star Wars" series. (Ian Gavan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Evanna Lynch

    Evanna Lynch plays Luna Lovegood, a loony Hogwarts student who plays an important role in the book. (Ian Gavan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Michael Gambon

    Michael Gambon replaced the late Richard Harris as beloved Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Harris, who passed away in 2002 at age 72, took the role in the first two films, and Gambon played him in the remaining movies. (Ian Gavan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 2 - World Film Premiere
    Ian Gavan / Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (20) 'Harry Potter' world premiere
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    Slideshow (22) Summer blockbusters

Gallery: Meet the characters of 'Harry Potter'

Monsters and wizards and witches, oh my! Get the scoop on everyone from the boy wizard himself to his friends, teachers, and enemies

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