Harry Potter may be a hero at Hogwarts, but he has never received much love from that other mysterious Academy, the one in Hollywood. The first seven films in the 'Potter' saga have received nine Academy Award nominations -- all in technical categories -- but have never won nor been serious contenders for Best Picture or any of the acting categories.
Could that all change with the rapturous reception from critics and audiences for 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2'? Not only is the film on track to become the top-grossing movie of the year (making it hard for the Academy to ignore), but it's also the last chance for the Academy to recognize the merits of not just one acclaimed movie but the whole beloved franchise.
Those are among the factors that give 'Deathly Hallows, Part 2' a better shot at Oscar glory than any of the first seven movies, but it's still going to be an uphill battle.
The chief obstacle for 'Deathly Hallows' will be Oscar's disdain for fantasy and sci-fi films. Given the chance to pick a movie with ostensible real-world social, political or historical importance over one that takes place in a speculative or imaginary world, the Academy will almost always go for the real-world movie. (Recent example: the victory last year of 'The Hurt Locker' over 'Avatar.') There's also the sense that the movies are dismissible as kids' stuff (despite their increasingly dark and violent tone and their appeal among adult viewers). But there is one recent exception that offers a slim hope, one which Potter fans are hanging their pointy hats upon.
That exception is 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,' another box office champion and fantasy-film franchise-capper, which swept the Oscars in 2004 and took Best Picture. But there are some clear differences between the hobbit films and the Hogwarts films. For one thing, all three 'Lord of the Rings' movies were nominated for Best Picture, so there was a precedent that the Potter pictures lack. Also, while the 'Return of the King' awards seemed to recognize the franchise as a whole, doing so made sense since Peter Jackson filmed all three parts at the same time. It's a lot easier to think of 'Lord of the Rings' as one very long movie released in three installments than it is for 'Harry Potter,' with eight films made over 11 years by four different directors.
One could also look at 'Deathly Hallows, Part 2's' critical support, an element that's usually crucial for bringing overlooked films to the Academy's attention. Currently, the movie holds an 87 score (out of 100) at Metacritic, while the critical consensus at Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie a 97 percent positive rating (100 percent among RT's top critics). The Awards Corner blog has crunched some numbers to point out that the Potter finale's Metacritic score is better than 68 percent of the Best Picture nominees' scores from the last 10 years, while its Rotten Tomatoes score is better than 85 percent of the last decade's Best Picture nominees and its RT Top Critics score beats 90 percent (and ties 10 percent) of the Best Picture nominees of the last 10 years. The blog is quick to point out, though, that critical support isn't enough on its own for an Oscar victory, or else such top-scoring critics' picks as 'The Social Network,' 'Toy Story 3' and 'Sideways' would be Best Picture winners.
'Deathly Hallows, Part 2's' box office would seem to make the film impossible to ignore. It smashed several records with its $169 million domestic opening, and it's already earned $476 million worldwide. There's no reason to think it won't be the top-grossing movie of 2011. And yet, being the top-grossing movie only helped 'Avatar' so much and didn't help 'The Dark Knight' at all, despite lofty critical praise for both films. The Academy likes to be populist (since nominating movies with huge fan bases is more likely to get people to watch the awards telecast), but it prefers to be seen as making its choices strictly on artistic merit, without being swayed by popular opinion or marketing (hence the awards for the little-seen 'Hurt Locker'). The Academy can't fail to notice the huge sales figures of 'Deathly Hallows,' but it won't want observers to think it gave that success any weight, so voters may make a point of not nominating it, just to be sure.
Of course, the main potential obstacles to a Potter victory at the Kodak Theatre are all the other likely Oscar contenders yet to be released. So far in 2011, there's not much that's a sure thing in the Best Picture category except maybe Woody Allen's 'Midnight in Paris' and Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life.' But before the end of the year, we'll see such biopics, literary adaptations and historical dramas as 'War Horse,' 'The Help,' 'J. Edgar', 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,' 'The Iron Lady,' 'The Descendants' and 'Coriolanus.' (There's also one other highbrow kids' movie, 'Hugo,' but it has the advantage of being directed by Martin Scorsese, so it may take the token kid-movie slot that might otherwise have gone to 'Deathly Hallows.') Two years ago, the Academy rule change that expanded the Best Picture field from five movies to 10 (a change made in the wake of the outrage over 'Dark Knight''s snub) might have ensured there was enough room for a populist favorite like the Potter finale, but the new rule just announced, which allows Oscar voters to choose between five and 10 nominees, may constrict the field again and hurt Potter's Best Picture prospects.
One place where 'Deathly Hallows' might have a strong shot is in the Best Supporting Actor category. Critics have been singling out Alan Rickman's moving performance as Professor Severus Snape in the finale, a portrayal that gives the mysterious, menacing character some real depth and complexity. Incredibly, Rickman has never been nominated for an Oscar, so the Academy may take this opportunity to right that wrong.
Nonetheless, the Oscar handicappers at the In Contention blog see Rickman as a dark horse at best among possible contenders, while they see 'Deathly Hallows' as an also-ran in a Best Picture field expected to be made up largely of movies few have seen yet.
Still, what happens if some of those films don't turn out to be as good as they're touted to be? What if, for all their aspirations to artistry or social importance, they don't turn out to be as satisfying to watch as the cathartic wallop packed by 'Deathly Hallows'? After all, what it comes down to is simply which movies did Oscar voters like the most.
And according to Oscar expert Dave Karger of Entertainment Weekly, they liked 'Deathly Hallows, Part 2.' "#HarryPotter film just screened for Oscar voters and I hear they loved it," Karger tweeted on Sunday. "Could it be the first one to get a Best Picture nomination?" That they had a special screening at all (of a movie that's not hard to find in theaters), especially this early in the voting year, has to be an encouraging sign for Potter's prospects. At the very least, it means that Academy voters are likely to consider the film on its own merits instead of reflexively dismissing it as a mass-market, family-friendly fantasy.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.