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Fun and war games in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Beginning of the end of Potter is as humorous as it is haunting

The magical jokes have never been the strongest parts of the Harry Potter films. Special effects-driven gags about the Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes or slapstick hexes at the expense of small-minded Muggles helped establish the franchise's supernatural rules but seldom elicited actual laughter.

The comedy comes as blessed relief in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, the heavy but powerful first half of the film adaptation of J.K. Rowling's final book in the series. Given the film's dark, despairing tone, shtick involving a half-dozen wisecracking Harry Potter decoys not only breaks the tension, but also harks back to the carefree, "Scooby-Doo"-style sleuthing in the early films at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Hogwarts doesn't even appear in Deathly Hallows Part 1, as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) become fugitives. Fascist sorcerer Voldemort (a terrifying Ralph Fiennes) seizes control and turns the wizarding world into a police state. The principal scenes take place in settings out of Gothic horror tales, from evil manor houses to quaint haunted villages. In between, Deathly Hallows Part 1 resembles a World War II resistance film; one haunting montage tracks the threesome across desolate English landscapes while grim news sputters on a staticky radio.

Director David Yates remains a master of mood and texture, but he seems unconcerned with streamlining Rowling's ridiculously convoluted plot as Harry and friends seek the mystic artifacts that hold the key to Voldemort's defeat. Deathly Hallows Part 1 assumes the audience has the prior Potter films fresh in mind and will recognize references to Horcruxes and the faces of old friends and enemies. You can enjoy the film without keeping straight the surplus of the magical doodads, although the animated sequence that explains the title objects provides a lovely, eerie highlight that evokes Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale."

Other two-part movies filmed back-to-back end their first films with crescendos and cliffhangers. The conclusion of Deathly Hallows Part 1, however, feels more like a chapter break and doesn't exactly send you out with high spirits. With its fantastical portrayal of totalitarianism and familiar characters making tragic sacrifices, the film proves to be a bit of a bummer that leaves you longing for the triumphs of the final chapter. Thankfully, some of Ron's self-deprecating quips or a charmingly geeky dance scene can make the bad mojo disappear.