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Potter Part 1 pauses action, delivers heart
It's the beginning of the end for Rowling's wizard hero
From left, Bill Nighy, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe star in "Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 1." The film is the second-to-last installment in the wizarding franchise. The final film is set for a summer 2011 release date.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes.

Rated: PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images and brief sensuality.

Runtime: 2 hours, 26 minutes

Bottomline: Heavy on heart, light on thrills.

Haven't they toyed with us long enough? Isn't it time to bring the Harry Potter saga to an end?

Not quite, but we're getting close.

The final book in J.K. Rowling's ubiquitous series of novels has been stretched into two movies, the first of which releases this Friday. But of course, if you're interested in Harry Potter at all, you already know that. In fact, you've probably been counting down the 492 days since the release of the last movie. Now your wait is down to just one... more... day.

Or maybe only a few more hours, if you're going to a midnight showing.

Warner Brothers and producer David Heyman deserve credit for creating a franchise unequaled in consistency. "Deathly Hallows I" is the seventh Potter movie, and I can't think of another series in all of film history that has held up as well for as many movies. One of the ways they've pulled this off is by giving each film a distinct tone and identity.

"Deathly Hallows I" differs from all other Potter movies because of its emotional depth. From the first frame, this movie is about Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) coping with their own mortality, loneliness, fears, and all the complexities created when the girl in the trio is one boy's best friend and the other's love.

The three are forced to sever ties - either permanently or temporarily — with everyone else in their lives. They must leave all of their friends, their parents, and the protective sanctuary of Hogwarts in order to track down the remaining Horcruxes, pieces of Voldemort's soul hidden in various objects. Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is dead, the Death Eaters raid homes and kill more wizards each day, and Voldemort's people have taken over the Ministry of Magic.

The only people who can stop Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his carnage, the last hopes of preventing the Dark Lord from conquering the entire world, are these three teenagers. And the entire time Harry, Hermione and Ron are hunting down the Horcruxes, they are pursued by the most dangerous and homicidal of Voldemort's cronies.

This is all extremely dark, scary stuff, and the movie excels at making us feel the isolation and fear our three favorite wizards are experiencing.

But the price for all this brooding character development is that the movie drags badly at times.

The production team gave themselves ample screen time by dividing the final book into two parts, but they don't take full advantage of it. They don't even show the deaths of two characters — one of which is a beloved secondary character (but which character? Oh the anticipation!). We never lay eyes on Hogwarts and we see almost nothing of the other students.

Instead, we spend a long, long time with Harry, Hermione and Ron as they hide out in desolate locations and do nothing much at all. For a while, they even seem to forget about the big mystery they're supposed to be pursuing.

It's no easy task to make the next to last movie in any franchise. The line between setting up the finale and providing a satisfying ending for the present movie is difficult to find. "The Empire Strikes Back," for instance, did this perfectly. That movie left everything hanging over the cliff, yet it is arguably the best of the Star Wars movies.

Unfortunately, the ending is the worst part of "Deathly Hallows I." It doesn't do much at all to build expectation and feels like a let-down.

On the other hand, certain scenes in "Deathly Hallows I" are among the best in the series, including a brilliant, unexpected animated sequence.

The movie leaves us well short of satisfied, but the thought of not seeing it is absurd for those (like me) who have followed it for almost a decade. You'll go, you'll see it, but you'll immediately start looking forward to Part II.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.