The freakishly popular "Twilight" saga is finally growing up, and just in time, since there's only one more film left in the franchise.
"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1" is yet another installment sure to baffle those who didn't fall in love with author Stephenie Meyer's novels. This time, our star-crossed lovers face some difficult choices involving life, death and the perils of bringing a baby into a mixed marriage - vampire and human, that is.
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The first of the two-part franchise finale finds Bella (Kristen Stewart) and the ghastly pale Edward (Robert Pattinson) prepping for their wedding day. Edward tells her he once lived a more "traditional" vampire life but only chose murderers to snack on. Yet Bella probably wouldn't care if he confessed to driving a busload of nuns into a ravine; she's still madly in love with the handsome bloodsucker.
The wedding is everything a Twi-Hard fan could crave, and the film blends some gentle humor into the picture-perfect proceedings. Bella's jittery pa (Billy Burke) looks more troubled than a man giving away his 18-year-old daughter to a man more pale than Uncle Fester.
The trouble really begins when Bella and Edward consummate their love at long last, a sequence directed with care by "Twilight" newbie Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls," "Gods and Monsters"). The franchise has never been so PG-13 before, but parents will be relieved that the moment of passion is treated as delicately as possible.
Their coupling comes with complications, most of which involve Edward not knowing his own strength. But it turns out the undead can still be mighty fertile, and in no time Bella has a bun in her oven, one that may end up killing her.
The "Twilight" films will clearly never satiate casual movie goers no matter who works behind the scenes, be it young at heart auteur Catherine Hardwicke ("Twilight") or the musically minded Condon. The source material is simply too flawed to yield a cinematic classic.
So we're left to appreciate the smaller pleasures each film affords. In "Part 1," that means watching Taylor Lautner, playing the hot-headed were-stud Jacob, flashing a semblance of range as the third part of the franchise love triangle. He's still a work in progress, but at least now he doesn't merely clench and unclench his jaw whenever he's angry.
Bella and Edward's romance remains a sweet and perfect thing, the franchise's unabashed beacon of joy. Marriage doesn't change that, but the spectre of death does force them to confront the reality of their choices.
"Part 1" lacks such insignificant details as dramatic tension, at least until the stubborn fetus starts sapping Bella of her life force. Fans won't care, but everyone else will wait... and wait... for some conflict to enter the frame. Even Jacob appears on his best behavior, as are the various members of the Cullen clan.
When a threat surfaces in the form of Jacob's werewolf buddies, the sense of danger barely reaches an "I'll grab my mace" level.
Yet the budding sense of maturity suits the franchise. The action sequences in every "Twilight" film can't get our pulses racing, and the cheap special effects will never bring horror fans into the fold. Stewart and Pattinson, regardless of their off-screen relationship, relish the chance to push their characters in new and challenging directions.
"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1" ends on a brief but satisfying high, the kind that might promise a rousing finale if only the first four films didn't consistently underwhelm.