“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.
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.
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?
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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?
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