Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best buddies, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are in their sixth year at Hogwarts but that once secure school for wizards and magic is under attack by the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Feinnes) and his Deatheaters. Despite the threats within, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is intent on preparing his young Chosen One for the pending ultimate battle with he-who-shall-not-be-named in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”
Director David Yates returns to the helm following his success with the 2007 blockbuster “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” The result is a faithful adaptation to the sixth installment in J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally lucrative book series that is a setup for the final act of one of the world’s favorite franchises.
I cannot imagine that the vast hordes of fans who will flock to the opening of “…the Half-Blood Prince” need a synopsis of the story. All have eaten up the about Harry, Dumbledore and their preparation for the much-anticipated battle between the young wizard and his corrupt and evil nemesis as a book, so describing what is already well known is superfluous, at best. I also cannot imagine the uninitiated to the Potter books or movies becoming curious enough to want to see the sixth installment, so why bother describing it to them.
There are the usual lavish special effects that just get better with each installment of the series that make the 21/2+ hour movie easy to sit through, even for an old curmudgeon like. Things also spice up with the burgeoning hormones of our young heroes as Harry falls for Ron’s now-older sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright), Ron is aggressively pursued by Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) and Hermione is conflicted over her budding feelings for Ron. This Peyton Place-esque romantic intrigue will hit the target of those kids (now teenagers) who have grown up with the Potter characters.
Whereas the earlier films, especially the first four in the series, used the copious special F/X to titillate and awe the viewer, “…the Half-Blood Prince” integrates the effects as part of the whole package. The need to draw an audience with visual magic is no longer a necessity and the filmmakers integrate the F/X into the story to solid results. There is the expected flash to the visuals (hey, they have the big budget to do it, right?) but they are not the reason the franchise followers will flock to the film.
The supporting cast, as has been the case right from the start, is a who’s-who of the British film business. Such veterans to the series as Michel Gambon (though I miss Richard Harris as Dumbledore), Maggie Smith, Julie Waters, Helena Bonham-Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Robbie Coltraine reappear in their well-worn roles and, new to the Potter films, Jim Broadbent, as the pivotal character, Professor Horace Slughorn. The huge cast of characters is familiar to us all so little time is spent unnecessarily developing most with time devoted to showcase the main players of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”
Techs are top notch and represent an evolution in the telling of Harry’s story. It is not that they have gotten slicker. They are just more mature and sure-handed than the earlier installments.
The Harry Potter series – both books and movies – have turned from the cutesy, aw-gee adaptations of the first two movies to a darker, more-worldly view of the battle between good and evil. The even-handed telling of “the Half-Blood Prince” does a first-rate job in laying the groundwork for the much-anticipated finale to this favorite film series (which will be released in two installments). I give it a B+.
It's been a while since Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) just packed his bags for the Hogwarts Express for a new term. We witness Deatheaters wrecking havoc with Muggles in London, collapsing a bridge over the Thames, and newly appointed Dark Arts Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) making an unbreakable magic agreement to not only protect Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) but carry through his assignment from the Dark Lord if necessary. Then Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) brings Harry to rerecruit Hogwarts' former Potions Professor, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent, "When Did You Last See Your Father?," "Inkheart"), all before the school year begins in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."
British television director David Yates, who took the reins of the series with the fifth chapter, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" returns (he is also finishing the split last edition, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows") as does screenwriter Steve Kloves (ironically, writer of every installment but Yates's first) and the ever darkening and endangering story is in excellent hands as it heads towards its finale. It is shocking to think that these technically stunning films have only garnered six Oscar nominations, three of them going to the first film, the remainder split among two others. "Half-Blood Prince" deserves a little Academy love, not only for its stunning art direction, cinematography and effects, but for the increasingly subtle work of Alan Rickman.
Rowlings's well-plotted White vs. Black Magic plot continues as we learn that Slughorn is the key to Voldemort's secrets as the Dark Lord's power builds. There are potions and poisons, curses and complicities afoot, as well as Potter's unfair advantage in Potions class - an old, preowned schoolbook filled with notes and corrections, autographed as belonging to the 'Half-Blood Prince.' The connection between that book and Potter is one of Rowlings's best story ideas and a foreshadowing to what lies ahead.
Sitting on top of this 'end of the world as we know it' scenario is one equally important to the main, teenaged characters - their confused love lives. Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) is disgusted to see his sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) snogging Dean Thomas (Alfie Enoch) in the Three Broomsticks, but Harry is downright devastated. The girl who's crushing on Harry will inadvertently put Ron in harm's way, but not as fearsomely as 'hearts 'n flowers' giggler Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave, "Inkheart") does when she claims him in defiance of Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), who is fending off her own crush in good-looking Cormac McLaggen (Freddie Stroma). (This present day scenario also harkens to the past, where raging hormones and unrequited love have echoed through in the psychology of now adult characters, not to be revealed until the final installment(s).)
At almost two and a half hours, the film moves swiftly, cutting between the intrigues of wizardry and romance before we finally get to the crux of things in an altered Tom Riddle memory set straight. Harry has lost family and classmates in prior episodes, but the stakes are very great here indeed. Oddly, for all the evil afoot, Voldemort is only spoken of or visually suggested, leaving his minions - most notably Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) - to provide physical presence. Yates's (and Kloves's) cohesion only falters once, when the decision is made too abruptly to rid Harry of his potions book.
The actors who started as children are growing into their roles well, most notably Emma Watson's mature Hermione. Radcliffe suffers from a small, thin-lipped mouth, which makes him appear weak at times, but intelligence mixed with the laxity of an average boy (using the Half-Blood Prince's notes for advancement, for example) shine through. Still, we have to be told he's pining for his best friend's sister rather than deduce it from the actor. Tom Felton, as Dracoy, suddenly appears to be approaching thirty, and his lined forehead is distracting. Evanna Lynch is a wonderful Luna and newcomer Jessie Cave is makes Lavendar an annoying bubblehead - just right. As the young Tom Riddle, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin is made up to look like a Boy from Brazil.
It is hard to believe that Michael Gambon has now appeared as Dumbledore in twice as many films as Richard Harris and he gives the character all the humanistic weight Dumbledore deserves (with no gay back story, at least not yet). Maggie Smith is relegated to little more than hall monitor in this outing, her face a constant mask of concern, and Coltrane's Haggis is also backgrounded to one late scene. Broadbent (how did he make it through five films with no appearance?) does a nice turn as the fussy Slughorn, easily taken in by compliments and making perhaps the most amusing first appearance of all the Potter films. Helena Bonham Carter's Lestrange comes into her own here. Rickman is sublime.
Effects are, as always, terrific, never more so than when the inky memories of Tom Riddle swirl into the clarity of Dumbledore's pensieve. Harry is introduced to time warp travel with Dumbledore and the sensations of speed and disorientation are jarring. The cursing of Katie Bell could stand in an exorcism film. Creatures and the cute little concoctions of the early films are nearly nonexistent here, although framed portraits, newspapers and posters continue to entertain.
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