In Theaters: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

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    Harry, Ron and Hermione return for their sixth screen adventure.

    Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
    Directed by David Yates
    Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon
    ***

    Like everyone else, I devoured Harry Potter’s adventures in print form.  Each time a new book hit the shelves, I’d plop down on the couch and read the whole thing in virtually one sitting.  But I’ve never approached the big-screen versions of Potter’s exploits with the same amount of enthusiasm.  It’s not that the movies are bad per se; even the weakest ones—which, in my opinion, would be Chamber of Secrets and Goblet of Fire—have things to recommend in them, including top-notch special effects and Alan Rickman’s always entertaining performance as Hogwarts’ resident killjoy teacher, Severus Snape.  What’s been missing from the film franchise as a whole, however, is the sense of epic scale and wonder that distinguishes the best fantasy films, like say, The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  To date, the only Potter movie that approached that level of filmmaking was the third installment, Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban, which effectively moved the series away from the kid-friendly tone of the first two films and introduced the darker teen drama that has dominated the past few pictures.

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    Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth entry in what has become an eight-part series, isn’t as strong a film as Azkaban, but it’s the first one since Cuarón’s movie that feels like more than a cinematic Cliff Notes edition of the book.  One of the chief problems with the last two movies—Goblet and Order of the Phoenix—is that they strained too hard to cram every detail of J.K. Rowling’s increasingly bloated novels into a two-hour runtime.  Taking the same approach with Half-Blood Prince would have proved disastrous as that particular tale is arguably the worst plotted book in the series, hinging on a mystery that isn’t all that mysterious.  (I’m referring, of course, to the identity of the titular prince, a revelation that’s only a surprise if you haven’t been paying to any of the previous books.)

    Fortunately, screenwriter Steve Kloves, who penned five out of the six films, cheerfully ignores that storyline in favor of a narrative that’s largely centered around the characters’ romantic relationships, which are growing more complicated with each passing school term.  Having moved on from Cho Chang, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is now making eyes at Ginny Weasley, the suddenly grown-up kid sister of his best buddy Ron (Rupert Grint).  Ron, meanwhile, is hiding his attraction to brainy hottie Hermione (Emma Watson) by macking on (or, in British parlance, snogging with) his number one fan, Lavendar Brown (Jessie Cave).  When not wrestling with his raging hormones, Harry helps Hogwarts’ headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) retrieve a vital Voldemort-related memory from the school’s newest staff member, Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), while also keeping tabs on his nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), who has been tasked with a secret mission by the Death Eaters, the Dark Lord’s army.

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    If none of these names are familiar to you, Half-Blood Prince isn’t worth your time.  Six films in and almost $4.5 billion in global ticket sales earned, the filmmakers aren’t at all concerned with attracting new viewers to the franchise, which means there’s little in the way of exposition or explanation of past events.  That’s probably for the best as another fifteen minutes of recap would have only served to drag out an already overlong movie. At least returning director David Yates keeps the proceedings clipping along nicely by employing a far more playful style than the overly dour Order of the Phoenix.  (Look for a beautifully composed M.C. Escher homage early in the film.)  Half-Blood Prince is filled with a number of crowd-pleasing moments that are sure to have the franchise’s legion of fans clapping and cheering delightedly.  Better still, most of these moments are quieter, character-centric beats rather than special-effects heavy set-pieces.  The Harry/Ginny romance is particularly well handled and allows Radcliffe to loosen up and show off the comic flair he demonstrated in his memorable cameo on the HBO series Extras.  I wish I could say that he and his co-stars have matured into better dramatic actors since they made their screen debuts eight years ago, but those scenes still have a student theater air about them.  Then again, when your co-stars include award-winning stage and screen veterans like Rickman, Gambon and Broadbent, even the most experienced actor is going to seem like a newbie.  Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is one of the better installments in the film franchise and in some ways it improves on the book.  But I have yet to be as enthralled by any of the movies as I was with the world Rowling created on the page.

    Verdict: See It

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