The special effects are more lavish than ever, and the big set-pieces — notably a dragon flight away from Gringotts bank across a London sky, and the final climactic showdown at a Hogwarts turned into a gigantic battle ground — are on a splendidly epic scale.
Final chapter: (From left) Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint in the latest Potter blockbuster Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
After a rather slow, lugubrious start, the film accelerates, and the introspective gloom of part one turns into genuinely thrilling action, as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) try to overthrow Voldemort’s dark forces.
Despite being in 3D, the picture looks and sounds better than ever. That’s because Eduardo Serra’s cinematography, Stuart Craig’s production design and Alexandre Desplat’s score (skilfully incorporating motifs from John Williams’s original) are all outstanding.
Fiery: Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange in the film
On the action front, there are satisfying heroic opportunities for Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall, Julie Walters as Mrs Weasley and Matthew David Lewis as a surprisingly courageous Neville Longbottom.
There are even welcome flashes of comedy. The highlight here is Helena Bonham Carter’s performance early on as Hermione, trapped inside Bellatrix Lestrange’s weird body but far too ladylike to convince inside it.
The three young leads fare less well, and the lovey-dovey moments feel perfunctory and apologetic. There’s precious little sexual or romantic chemistry here.
An even more glaring defect is one that has dogged the series since episode five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: to be fully understood, the film relies far too much upon the audience having read the books. There are so many characters that several of them pop up without sufficient explanation.
It is far from obvious, for example, why the Weasley parents happen to be at Hogwarts for the showdown. Nor are the loyalties of the Malfoy family ever as clear in the film as they are in the book. The mechanics of Harry’s Christ-like ability to cheat death are similarly opaque.
From the fifth film onwards, the story-telling has felt rushed, and in episode eight there are again too many lurching leaps in the narrative.
Screenwriter Steve Kloves is not entirely to blame; the last three of JK Rowling’s novels were much too long, poorly edited (if, indeed, they were edited at all) and slackly structured. That made the task of condensing them to a watchable length in the cinema a well-nigh impossible assignment.
David Yates has been very efficient in directing the last four films, but he lacks the visionary talents of a Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, or indeed Alfonso Cuaron, who did such a stunning job visually on Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban — ironically, the least commercially successful of the eight.
My biggest reservation about the series is that it became less fun the more seriously it took itself.
As the films have — like Rowling’s books — grown more and more preoccupied with mortality, they have become less entertaining.
Whatever religious and political implications have been read into the books and films, Harry’s principal purpose was to entertain, and Rowling’s greatest gift strikes me as being not her spiritual depth, but her sense of humour.
The later pictures have, like the novels on which they are based, lacked the rich comic wit of the first three, and the emphasis on pain, torture and death has made them too frightening for small children.
At the same time, the saga has never matured sufficiently to attain the mythic grandeur of Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings, nor come close to his subtlety of characterisation.
So I don’t imagine this will emulate The Return Of The King and sweep the Oscars. Nor is the film strong enough to win a lot of new admirers for the franchise.
But I would certainly recommend episode eight to the millions of Harry Potter fans who have grown up alongside the novels and films.
Some of the other blockbusters this summer have been as spectacular, but only this one will have audiences brushing away a tear by the end.
It’s a rare film that manages to be both spectacular and sweet.