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Review: Final 'Harry Potter' goes out with a bang

By Tom Charity, CNN
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'Potter' stars take a final bow
  • The film builds on the emotional connections from the previous seven films
  • The series has acted as a showcase for a vast gallery of terrific acting
  • It's the shortest of the "Potter" movies at two hours, 10 minutes, but the tempo is perfect

Tune in to CNN at 8 p.m. ET tonight for the Larry King special "Harry Potter: The Final Chapter." King talks with the cast and shows never-before-seen footage of the final "Harry Potter" film and more.

(CNN) -- They saved the best for last.

The concluding episode of the long-running and phenomenally successful series is a triumph for J.K. Rowling and her collaborators: screenwriter Steve Kloves, producer David Heyman and most of all, director David Yates.

This is blockbuster filmmaking with heart and soul, as well as grand spectacle, excitement and that typically British line in wry self-effacement. It's been a long time -- well, at least since "Toy Story 3" -- that a summer tentpole picture has so thoroughly exceeded expectations.

Of course the eighth film builds on the achievements of the previous seven, and especially on the reservoir of emotional connections fans have built up with the series' youthful but maturing stars.

We have followed Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson for 10 years now, since they were 11, and amidst all the CGI wizardry and fantasy the films also stand as the most expensive home movies ever made, a documentary record of these children transforming into young adults.

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The series' other great strength (along with the digital effects team's vivid rendering of Rowling's most imaginative fancies) has been as a showcase for a vast gallery of terrific character acting.

Personal favorites include Helena Bonham-Carter's banshee-like Bellatrix LeStrange, Gary Oldman's stalwart Sirius Black and Maggie Smith's dotty but redoubtable Minerva McGonagall. But that is to sleight the contributions of Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Emma Thompson, Jim Broadbent and so many others.

Rickman (Severus Snape) is delicious, here, reduced to just a handful of lines but savoring each and every syllable. And Fiennes' theatrical Voldemort is electrifying in the final scenes.

Rowling probably doesn't get compared to Charles Dickens in any other respect, but when it comes to creating larger-than-life characters, she has taken his lessons to heart, and actors must love her for it.

If the last several films have been hampered by Rowling's reluctance to get on with the story -- it has been two steps forward and one step back for a while now -- that doesn't apply to the climax.

But Yates, who shepherded the previous three movies dutifully without ever showing much passion before now, knows better than to rush things. There's a striking composure and conviction about the early dialogue scenes.

This is the shortest of the Potter movies at two hours, 10 minutes, but the tempo is exactly right, rising and falling as Harry's fortunes bring him back to Hogwarts in search of the last horcrux and the school becomes a battleground -- a war zone -- for the eternal fight between good and evil.

Yates doesn't bombard us with a blitz of fast cuts, his style is classical and considered, but he also integrates CGI with such fluency and finesse that the digital imagery (a force-field around the school that turns into a lightning storm when the assault comes, or a raging conflagration that rips through a warehouse as if it's a pyromaniac dragon) never takes us out of the emotion of the scene.

That extends to 3-D, too: The film was converted in post-production, but with more care than usual, and some degree of forethought.

It's under-exposed, unfortunately, so that some scenes aren't just dark, they're dim, but the film also has a palpable sense of space and texture.

Yates doesn't lean on the trick shots, either. Listen for how he strips out the score so that we hear nothing but Harry's short, panicky breath after he learns what his fate must be, or look for the brief snatched close-up of Voldemort's gaping eye in the wake of their mortal duel to appreciate how freely expressive Yates' filmmaking can be.

It's a bit late in the day to suggest you catch up with Harry Potter now, but fans should find every reason to be satisfied with this last offering, it has the scope and tenor their loyalty richly deserves.