Review in a Hurry: Relax. They didn't screw it up. The grand finale of the Harry Potter saga brings narrative and emotional closure by finally delivering the grand confrontation all the previous films were building toward. Nonfans may be a little lost, but then, how many nonfans are going to jump into a franchise cold at part eight?
The Bigger Picture: Let's get the most obvious questions out of the way first. The 3-D, which always sounded like an afterthought, works well (especially in IMAX). The dementors that hover around Hogwarts are enhanced particularly nicely, and an underground-dwelling albino dragon is surprisingly scary in stereoscopic.
Director David Yates still periodically allows some awkward edits, but he's gotten a lot better since Order of the Phoenix and is up to the challenge of ending things with a big bang. And he's not to blame for the franchise's curious early step of casting Warwick Davis in dual roles as Professor Flitwick and Griphook the Goblin, which has never felt more weird than in this film where both have significant scenes.
If the now-adult wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) were real, we'd half-expect, after all he's been through, to turn to his professors and go: "See? You should have listened to me way back in the first movie!"
Being better than most of us, he does not do this, and anyway, if he did it would go against the primary metaphor of the books, which is the journey from boy to man, and the process of coming to grips with the weirdness of the adult world. Nemesis Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), looking like both a cancer patient and an overgrown baby gone bad, is less a full-on character in these movies than an embodiment of the fears of both arrested development and mortality.
One of the seldom-noted strengths of the Potter films is that, with the notable exception of Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), they treat death in a naturalistic fashion. People are casually, brutally dispatched, and that gets amped up here, with major players biting the bewitched bullet on- and off-screen. Parents should be warned that the PG-13 rating is probably inappropriate: there is blood and murder aplenty, not to mention a gross fetus-like monster.
What of everyone's favorite ambiguously mean teacher, Professor Snape (Alan Rickman)? Rest assured he gets the resolution he deserves, while providing crucial backstory. The movie could have used a bit more of him, though.
Blink and you may miss quick moments that wrap up the storylines of smaller supporting staff, though. Take a bathroom break and you may find yourself without information crucial to understanding the hows and the whys of all these good and evil wizards hurling energy bolts at each other.
We figure you'll be glued to the screen, so it won't be an issue: this is the summer spectacle you've been waiting for.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Readers of the book will remember a key scene and memorable line between Mrs. Weasley (Julie Walters) and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). It's here, but it feels like it made it to the screen out of obligation. What should have been a stand-up-and-cheer moment is just something to quickly dispense before cutting back to Harry.