What's the latest Harry Potter film like? If you've seen the previous six, you already know. If you haven't there's no point in trying to catch up now.
It's a tribute to how much the series' true believers are being counted on to carry the film that this latest episode makes little attempt to bring newcomers up to speed about what's come before.
Much of the plot of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" involves the attempt to find and destroy a series of Horcruxes, and if you haven't a clue about what they are or why they're important, you might as well stay home.
There is something different, however, about this Potter movie, and that is the words "Part 1" that end the title. Understandably distraught about "Hallows" being the last of the phenomenally popular J.K. Rowling novels, Warner Bros. has split the final effort into two films and is likely kicking itself for not having thought of that with the earlier books.
You don't make $5.7 billion in theatrical revenue, however, by being cavalier about your source material and the watchword for the "Potter" series in general, and this film in particular, is making the audience feel like it's in safe hands.
Though adventurous filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón have made "Potter" films, David Yates, who directed the two previous epics as well as both installments of "Deathly Hallows," is not one of them.
Capable and dependable, he can be counted on to make solid albeit unsurprising films that believe in connecting the dots rather than creating risky excitement. When studio president Alan Horn said his priority for the series was treating the books "respectfully," he wasn't kidding.
Being respectful also means making sure you have quality people behind the camera (Steve Kloves has written almost all the screenplays and the new cinematographer is Oscar-nominated "Girl With a Pearl Earring" veteran Eduardo Serra) as well as top acting talent in front of it. Even if you don't always have enough for them to do.
In fact, the Potter films are so loaded down with the best of British performers that Bill Nighy, who was added to the cast this time along with Rhys Ifans, wasn't really kidding when he commented, "For a while, I thought I would be the only English actor of a certain age who wasn't in a 'Harry Potter' film."
Nighy sets the tone for the latest film when, as Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour, he looks right into the camera and croaks, kind of like a British John Carradine, "These are dark times, there is no denying it. Our world has never faced a greater threat."
What the minister is referring to, of course, is a bid for universal domination by Lord Voldemort (a chilling, barely recognizable Ralph Fiennes). The only thing that stands in his way is the boy Harry Potter, who must be killed, and by Voldemort personally, if the Dark Lord is to consolidate his power.
As Voldemort's dark mark becomes visible in the sky, everyone, Muggle and wizard alike, flees for their lives from the dread Death Eaters. This very much includes our hero Mr. Potter ( Daniel Radcliffe) and his best pals Hermione Granger ( Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley ( Rupert Grint).
With Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the hands of the enemy, these three have to strike out into the world at large as they look for those Horcruxes, which as magical receptacles for fragments of Voldemort's soul simply must be destroyed. Check and double check.
One of the pleasures of the "Harry Potter" series is watching these three actors grow up from film to film along with the characters. That experience gives the trio of performers a real-world camaraderie to call on, and they turn out to need it.
For the sour way these three friends respond to the stresses of Harry being labeled "Undesirable No. 1" is not a treat. That, added to the pressure of his being "the chosen one," turn him sullen and hot-tempered, and Ron Weasley responds by going into "what am I chopped liver?" mode. As in the book, it's more teenage psychodrama than we'd ideally have to deal with. Dragging the story out to what likely will be five hours in length after the second part comes out next summer only adds to the problem.
To be fair to "Deathly Hallows," the filmmakers have tried hard to fill the proceedings with battles and chases and debilitating curses. Genuine filmmaking excitement, however, is harder to provide. One look at the most visually striking part of the film, a vibrant and involving animation sequence supervised by Ben Hibon that tells the Deathly Hallows origin story, demonstrates more vividly than any review could exactly what this film has been missing.