There's no safe place for Harry in 'Deathly Hallows'

Harry Potter appears to have dropped out of Hogwarts, and you can hardly blame him.

In "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I" he spends most of his time roaming a barren countryside with Ron and Hermione, far away from his creepy prep school, where a coalition of faculty, alumni and students is conspiring to kill him.

"Hallows" opens with the sort of episode that's become business as usual at Hogwarts - a big gang of Harry-haters gathers to torture a teacher, who is then eaten by a snake.

Really, who would send their kids there? One awaits the David Guggenheim documentary "Waiting For Voldemort," about a secretive, antiquated charter school where mathematics is completely missing from the core curriculum, the headmaster is chucked off the bell tower, teachers are murdered and students are abused on a regular basis. (At least nobody blames the teachers union.)

If there's a saving grace, it's that Hogwarts students are very well read, as you might expect of a school created by a best-selling author like J.K. Rowling.

Print, in Rowling's world, is thriving. Her alternate universe is magically free of digital media, and everyone gets his info from newspapers and radios. (We can dream, can't we?)


Are you planning to see "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1"?

In "Deathly Hallows" the headlines are ablaze with news of a sinister changing of the guard - Hogwarts' headmaster is dead and gone, changes are afoot at the ministry of magic, where authoritarians obsessed with wizard-witch racial purity are taking over.

Voldemort and his allies are winning, and there's no safe place for Harry, who spends much of "Hallows" in an aimless, rural exile.

It's a weird place for a big-franchise movie like "Hallows" to take place. Hermione keeps her pals out of trouble by teleporting them from one barren locale to another - on the moors, they wander, dream and contemplate strange visions.

There is only the barest of storylines. Harry and friends (Dan Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson) combat Voldemort by destroying objects alleged to contain portions of his malevolent mojo, but it's an abstract process that's so slow, even the characters joke about its langor.

For book outsiders like me, there are big narrative problems with this. One is that nothing much happens ("Unstoppable" it ain't). Another is that Voldemort stipulates early and often that no one but he is to kill Harry, so for all of "Hallows" ominous mood, there's no urgent sense that anything decisive will happen.

Also, the arcane, anything-goes rules of Rowling's magical realm are hard to understand, cinematically. Hermione can telepathically move the gang anywhere she wants . . . sometimes. Sometimes she can't. No doubt this makes sense on the page. On screen, not so much.

"Hallows," much more than the previous installments, is a readers-only affair. And that's smart, commercially. At this point, almost no one is going to walk in cold to part seven of the Potter franchise, and certainly no one would expect it to make stand-alone sense.

The goal of the movies, now, is to make the franchise as faithful to Rowling as it can be, as visually rich, digitally well-appointed as possible. Here, director David Yates succeeds. It's obvious no expense has been spared.

Which is why Warner's is obviously keen to maximize its investment, splitting the "finale" in two. If you're the sort of fan who shows up to "Hallows" in a sorting hat and a robe, you'll have no complaints. For the unconverted, it's a bit of a chore.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1

Directed by David Yates. With Ralph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans, John Hurt, Rupert Grint, Bill Nighy, Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe, Robbie Coltrane, Imelda Staunton. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 26 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images and brief sexuality).