'Harry Potter': Deathly Dull

Jaap Buitendijk / Courtesy of Warner Bros

The new Harry Potter movie starts with a close-up shot of the Minister of Magic, who barks: "These are dark times. There's no denying it." You're obviously supposed to notice the 2010 subtext, but it's hard to make that leap when the film itself looks like it was shot under a storm cloud. Harry scowls nonstop, as if he's channeling his inner Mr. Darcy. Hermione and Ron must have food stuck in their teeth because they don't crack a smile either. The dismal soundtrack is totally appropriate—for a funeral. In 146 minutes, not much happens besides a handful of wand fights and the revelation that Harry drinks cappuccino. Actually, the most disturbing revelation is the film's title: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. You mean there's more?

For years, Lord Voldemort has tried to kill Harry Potter, but the bloated films based on J. K. Rowling's books have essentially done the deed for him. They've taken one of the most enchanting series in contemporary fiction and sucked out all the magic. That's not to say these movies aren't faithful; they follow the plot meticulously—to their detriment. There are so many extraneous details, characters, subplots, and sub-subplots, you have no idea what you're watching unless you've read the books, and even then, you need the Cliffs Notes. What's worse is that while Rowling's stories are endlessly inventive, Potter onscreen just gives you a headache. The movies feel like a never-ending amusement-park ride, which is probably intentional, since Universal just opened one. Oh, and by the way: Harry Potter is now the world's most successful film franchise at $5.4 billion in box-office receipts, beating all 22 chapters of James Bond.

Grumps like me always complain that movies aren't as good as the books they're adapted from, but that's especially true of the Potter series. The first two films, directed by Chris Columbus (Home Alone), were a narrative mess. The series became more interesting (thanks to Alfonso Cuarón) over the years, but it's never managed to stand on its own, to find something unique to say without the books propping up every scene. The latest director, David Yates (The Girl in the Café), has visual flair, but he also suffers from Peter Jackson disease. His cameras rock and quiver in the shadows before he runs out of story, which makes the decision to break this film into two parts especially indulgent.

Like the book, Deathly Hallows is set away from Hogwarts, with Harry, Ron, and Hermione on a mission to destroy the disparate parts of Voldemort's soul. As they find themselves banished in the wilderness, you can't help but miss that other woodsy, pubescent film trio: Bella, Edward, and Jacob. The Twilight books aren't nearly as good, but the movies are a giddy, guilty pleasure, with all the goofy line readings and shirtless werewolves. Deathly Hallows includes a brief love triangle as well, but the screenplay is too comatose to pull off sexy. When Hermione says, "Take it off! I said take it off now!" she's only referring to a Horcrux around Harry's neck. And when they share a dance, both actors seem tired and rumpled. Are they headed for college or retirement? We'll find out in part two—unless there's a part three.