Did the HARRY POTTER franchise save the best for last?

In some ways Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II was a sure thing. The ground work had already been laid ten years before, when Chris Columbus cast the Potter films so perfectly, and created the ideal tone of reverence for the works of JK Rowling. We can argue about which film is the best, which director we like better, but there’s no denying that the second most important figure (behind Rowling) in the Potter movieverse is Columbus himself.

The real work, though, came from JK Rowling, who had to write the story that finished the entire Potter saga. She was tasked with sticking the landing, the rarest of all things in longform storytelling.

And boy did she. The finale of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was moving and exciting and, most of all, satisfying from both narrative and thematic standpoints. And so it was always a pretty sure thing that the movie Deathly Hallows Part II would work.

Does it ever. The film truly benefits from the two movie structure - all of the tedious camping stuff was left in film one, so film two is just a huge climax. Screenwriter Steve Kloves and director David Yates have structured it perfectly so that the movie breathes, taking moments between the big scenes and the big action, allowing a pace that almost lets Deathly Hallows Part II feel like an actual movie, and not just the third act of a larger story.

It helps that there’s a lot of information yet to deliver, and that Harry’s voyage of personal discovery is far from over at the beginning of the film. He still has to learn the truth about Snape, his father, Dumbledore - basically Harry has to learn the lessons that truly make us adults, the lessons that let us understand the foibles and weaknesses of the grown ups who were once giants in our lives. This is where the longform aspect of the film series truly comes into play, when we flash back to when Harry first wore the Sorting Hat and everyone is so young, and the adults are so much less complex. By the time we get to that flashback we understand that the Snape we thought we knew hid incredible depths, and that feeling of discovery and shock is only possible because we’ve been journeying with these same people all these years.

This is the film where Alan Rickman truly gets to shine. Yes, he does his delicious, drawn-out eeeevil line delivery (he puts pauses in such wonderful places), but he also gets to explore a very, very different side of Snape. Without spoiling those who haven’t read the books this is the part of the story where Snape reveals his true colors, which are much more human and humane than you might have expected. Rickman finds the pathos without being pathetic, and he has moments in this movie that tear at your heart and leave the theater filled with sniffling messes.

There’s a lot to cry at here; there’s sadness, as beloved characters are brutally and senselessly killed, but there’s also triumph that touches. And most of all, there’s love. That’s the true theme of the series, the idea that Harry and Voldemort aren’t so different except for one defining characteristic: love. Harry was loved - so loved that his mother gave her life for him - while Tom Riddle never knew kindness or love. The most touching moments in Deathly Hallows are the moments of love and faith; Rowling’s story gets plenty dark (this is a shockingly hard PG-13, and I suspect that younger kids should come nowhere near a movie where a wolfman feeds on the ravaged neck of a Hogwarts student), but it’s always in service of showing the power of love. It’s all about creating the contrast and illustrating that no matter how bad things get, love and hope can make all the difference.

Having some magic on your side doesn’t hurt, either. The final hour or so of the film is the Battle of Hogwarts, a night-long assault on the school by the combined forces of Voldemort - Death Eaters, giants and enormous spiders. Standing arrayed aganist this army of evil is three houses worth of students, a few teachers, some animated statues, the tattered remains of The Order of The Phoenix and Harry Potter’s little Scooby Gang. Yates isn’t interested in shooting a war film, and while the Battle rages for much of the film’s running time, he’s not going into Bay-esque detail. Unlike the Battle of Chicago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the Battle of Hogwarts is mostly about the way the characters react to things, and the way that the tides of the battle reflect Harry’s inner turmoil. A lot of the action takes place in the background, surely rewarding future viewing. Sadly, much as happened in the book, many (if not all) of the tragic deaths happen offscreen. I would have liked to see brave death scenes for some of these characters, and I always wondered if Rowling simply didn’t have the heart to dwell on them.

But don’t think that the character-driven aspect of the Battle of Hogwarts means that Yates skimped on it. There’s plenty of action, big giant scenes of destruction, and the little moments of awesomeness that fans of the books loved (“Not my daughter, you bitch!”). It’s completely satisfying on the level of an FX-driven summer blockbuster. But most importantly it’s satisfying on the level of a great drama.

Daniel Radcliffe goes out strong here; he’s had a semi-thankless job all these years, playing a character who truly edges on Mary Sue territory. Rowling made Harry go through some dickish adolescent moments the movies mostly elided, and so the character in the films has always felt pretty brave and good and all that stuff - rarely anything interesting to play. And while I don’t think Radcliffe is one of our next great actors, it’s been incredible watching him grow up on screen and come out here, at the end, very much a man. Radcliffe tinges Harry’s bravery in the face of ultimate defeat with a bit of vulnerability and fear; it’s more inspiring watching someone overcome terror than watching someone be above it. Radcliffe lets us watch him wrestle with being very, very afraid.

The rest of the no-longer-so-young cast is wonderful as well. It’s A games all around, even when folks have fairly little to do. Ron and Hermione mostly have to feel worried about Harry, although they do get to the logical end of their relationship arc and it’s handled sweetly and humorously. Rupert Grint has some presence, which is something I never would have guessed would be the case way back in Sorcerer’s Stone. Emma Watson has grown up to be simply beautiful, but I feel like her casting may have been the most prescient. She comes across as so smart and willful, qualities that she was not guaranteed to take through the whole saga. You can’t fake intelligence.

I mentioned the humor in Ron and Hermione’s courtship; while the tone of the general series has gotten way, way darker over time, Rowling never lost sight of the whimsy that made the world of Harry Potter so much fun in the first place, and Deathly Hallows Part II allows that in as well. There are moments of small delight and big laughs, none of which get in the way of the very serious, very deadly proceedings at hand. When Harry and company apparate into Hogsmeade before sneaking into Hogwarts there is an alarm that sounds - in the form of the wailing of cats. It’s these details that connect the last film to the first, that remind us that we’re in the same universe, still filled with chocolate frogs and living paintings. That current of whimsy reminds us of the first films, which is the embodiment of what these characters are fighting for.

It’s not fair to place Deathly Hallows Part II on the spectrum of ‘Best Harry Potter films’ because it has the decided advantage of being made up of only the really good, exciting and touching parts. One day I’ll watch both halves back to back and see how this duology functions as one movie. But in the meantime I love Part II, love it unconditionally. I was thrilled, I was brought to tears, I even found myself - in a staid press screening! - applauding wildly at certain triumphant moments.

This film is, in a lot of ways, the crowning achievement of the series. If you are not a Harry Potter fan don’t bother - as has been the case with the last few movies nothing is explained, no characters get reintroductions and it’s more of the same stuff you didn’t like before. But if you are a fan this isn’t just a movie, it’s a wonderful event, one that you have to experience in a theater filled with like-minded people. This is what you hope for when you invest yourself in a longform story: a rousing climax and a stirring ending. As the final shot of the film goes to black, with John Williams’ original score playing over it, I dare you to stay dry-eyed.