We won't know until July 15, 2011, whether or not the final book in J.K. Rowling's franchise really needed to be divided into two motion pictures. But until the release of Part 2 on that forthcoming summer day, the evidence based on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (*** out of four) leads to an inconclusive verdict.
Like the previous six installments, this one clocks in around the 2-1/2 hour mark. But this is the first picture in the series that actually drags. It's not a disastrous debit since the majority of the film is so strong, but it does suggest that some judicious trimming might have given us the final chapter in one fell swoop. The coasting comes in the middle of the movie, which is fortunate since it leaves the production with a vibrant opening act and a powerhouse final hour. Newbies to this world of wizardry need not apply, but fans of the previous films will immediately be swept up in this latest chapter, which begins by killing off one of the good guys and sending Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) on a crusade to locate specific items that might help them vanquish the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).
The movie spends an awful lot of time on the three teens as they set up camp in an isolated area, and the romantic yearning between them, usually a highlight of the series, here settles into soap opera mundaneness. Yet once the story leaps past this narrative hurdle, it again gets back to the intriguing dynamics that have long defined this series, culminating in a cliffhanger finale that promises great things in the next installment. Part 1 may not be the best film in the series, but it hints that Part 2 might have a shot at the title.