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HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE
(****)

Movie Review by:
Jim "Good Old JR:" Rutkowski
Directed by:
David Yates
Written by:
Steve Kloves
, based on the novel of the same name by J.K. Rowling
Starring:
Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Running time:
153 minutes
Released:
07/15/09
Rated PG for scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality
"...contains more dramatic depth and recognizable human emotions than most allegedly serious-minded films of recent vintage that I could name."
Although there are any number of eye-popping things on display in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”--fantastical special effects, lavishly designed sets and the Helena Bonham Carter wreaking havoc in outfits designed to subtly remind people that Tim Burton is one of the luckiest people on the planet--the most dazzling and amazing element is the film itself. This is, after all, the sixth installment of the incredibly lucrative film franchise based on the equally successful books of J.K Rowling and when a series goes on this long, a certain ennui usually begins to set in--the situations can begin to repeat themselves and the actors tend to coast through their contractual obligations (if they haven’t already figured out a way to wiggle free from them) while displaying little enthusiasm for anything outside of their presumably huge paychecks. Hell, even the James Bond films had begun to lose a little bit of their luster at some point in their history. And yet, the Potter films have managed to remain fresh and exciting over the years and this latest entry is no exception--a lovely work of popular entertainment that may seem like just another family fantasy spectacular but which also contains more dramatic depth and recognizable human emotions than most allegedly serious-minded films of recent vintage that I could name.

Supplying a plot synopsis seems a bit ludicrous at this stage of the game--if you are a hard-core fan of the saga, you know more or less what is in store and if you have never seen one of these films by this point, you aren’t going to have a clue as to what I am talking about--but I will nevertheless proceed on the assumption that anyone reading this is more or less up to speed on what is going on. This time around, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is returning to Hogwarts with the knowledge that he may well be the Chosen One--the lone wizard powerful enough to defeat the fearsome Lord Voldemort, the ultra baddie who killed Harry’s parents on his way to becoming the most evil thing around. Because of this, he is recruited by Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), the school’s aging headmaster, to help him investigate Voldemort’s early days, when he was just another Hogwarts student by the name of Tom Riddle, in the hopes of finding something that they can use to defeat him once and for all. One possible key to the riddle of Riddle may lay in the mind of Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), a former Potions professor at the school whom Dumbledore has rehired in the hopes of uncovering what went on between him and Riddle. At the same time, Harry grows increasingly suspicious of the activities of his rival, the loathsome Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), and the way that he seems to be connected with the fearsome Professor Snape (Alan Rickman). Although he can’t quite prove that Malfoy is responsible for a series of mysterious and life-threatening incidents, Harry is convinced that he is responsible and begins investigating with the help of an extra-powerful handbook of potions and spells that used to belong to someone identifying himself as “the Half-Blood Prince.”

This is all terrifying enough, I suppose, but it is no match for the equally frightening and mysterious world of ordinary adolescent weirdness that Harry and his friends now find themselves embroiled in. Thanks to his status as the potential Chosen One, Harry has become the target of every girl in the school with a secret crush and the ability to whip up a love potion. However, it becomes increasingly obvious that he only has eyes for Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), the sister of best pal Ron (Rupert Grint), though she is currently dating some slick twerp who always has his hands on her but just doesn’t appreciate her in the way that she should be appreciated. For his part, Ron has succumbed to the charms of fellow student Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) and while the smothering nature of her love can be off-putting at times, the snogging is enough to make up for it, at least for a while. Alas, this particular development doesn’t set very well with Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), the longtime friend who begun to develop an obvious and inexplicable (to her, at least) crush on him. Not that she would admit such a thing under any circumstance but when she looks at him with Lavender, she knows that this new girl doesn’t appreciate the big dope in the way that he should be appreciated. Let us just say that Hell hath no fury like a Hermione scorned, especially if you are a flock of cute birds that happen to appear in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Actually, it is the inclusion of this kind of material that is the key to why the Harry Potter series continues to work today. After all, the kids who were maybe eight years old when the first film was released are now on the cusp of finishing high school themselves and, as a result, have different interests and concerns than they did back then. Instead of staying in the whimsical and carefree world of pre-adolescence, the stories and characters have grown and matured along with the audiences and are dealing, however obliquely, with the very things that the viewers are wrestling with in their own lives--experiments with the opposite sex and other illicit substances, questioning authority and struggling to find one’s place in the world. Of course, this kind of material is the kind that might have easily been jettisoned early on in the hands of others--they don’t provide the kind of visual flash that looks good in trailers or helps to sell action figures and the additional running time prevents theaters from cramming in an extra show--and so it is to the credit of the producers that they have evidently recognized how important such scenes are to the series as a whole. In fact, when most people finish watching this film and begin thinking about their favorite parts, my guess is that they will find themselves concentrating less on such elaborate effects sequences as the inevitable Quidditch tournament and more on things like the delightful bit in which Harry and Ron obliquely discuss their respective infatuations with Ginny and Hermione by endlessly remarking about the quality of their skins.

In bringing “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” to the screen, screenwriter Steven Kloves (who has worked on the scripts for all but “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”) and director David Yates (who previously helmed “Order of the Phoenix”) have had to face two hurdles that could have easily overwhelmed them--figuring out a way of telescoping Rowling’s enormous tome into the framework of a movie running a not inconsiderable 2 ½ hours without losing too much and of overcoming the fact that the entire story is essentially an extended set-up for the grand finale of the next and last chapter (actually two chapters, as it has been split into two separate features). Having read all the Potter novels including the one on which this film is based, I can say that Kloves has done a beautiful job of wrestling the book to the screen. Sure there are many things that fell by the wayside and I am sure that devotees will gripe about this or that bit of business not being around. However, the important thing is that as you are watching the story unfold, you never get the sense for a second that anything is missing--it would appear that Kloves has managed to boil the material down to its essential narrative elements without losing the little details or character moments that give it its flavor.
Now that I am on this side of the turned page, it will be very curious to see how the readers will respond. Toned down are many elements of Voldemort’s murderous past. Again, just a line and a stare are more eerily presumptuous than any crime scene we could have revisited. (Some of which would not be surprising if they saved it for the two-part Deathly Hollows in Nov. 2010 and July 2011.) A deadly injury to a third-tier character towards the end has been jettisoned. My personal favorite in the book, a joyous reveal and reaction involving Ron, Harry and Ginny was disappointing to see go. But there are more than enough other joyous and very funny moments to make up for it. The Half-Blood Prince could easily be construed as just a bridge to establish the final go-round. So are our teenage years though and there’s too much going on with our hormones, friendships and discoveries to merely dismiss them as prequel.

As for Yates, he does an equally good job of balancing the fantastical material with the more down-to-earth stuff as well. It is easy enough to create elaborate visual effects in a film these days but it is much trickier to populate them with recognizable people and emotions but he pulls that off with an FX epic in which the characters are as important as the hardware. He does it so well in fact that even if you know full well what is coming in the fairly devastating finale (as a huge chunk of the audience presumably will), his handling of the material is still likely to jerk a tear or two out of you. (If you or your little ones don’t know what is in store, get ready for waterworks on a scale not seen since the death of Bambi’s mom.) An even more significant achievement is that while the story as whole is, as I noted, essentially a bridge for events to come, it never feels that way for a second--it comes across as an exciting and compelling story in its own right from start to finish. Another secret to the success of the Harry Potter films has always been the general excellent work from all the actors--if there has been a truly dud performance in any of the installments to date, I can’t recall it at this time. Of course, it helps matters considerably in this area when you have many of England’s finest actors filling up the supporting cast--besides the likes of Gambon, Rickman and Broadbent (all three of whom are exceptional here), there are also turns from the likes of Maggie Smith, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Julie Walters and Robbie Coltrane. The importance of such heavy-duty personages in a film like this cannot be underestimated--not only does their mere presence indicate that this is more than standard kid-oriented silliness, they approach the material as seriously as they would anything else and therefore do a better job of making all the talk of spells, potions and curses sound reasonably convincing. Also, once again there are the terrific performances from the trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as Harry, Ron and Hermione. In much the same way that the films as a whole have, each of them have gone deeper into their characters with each successive film and they are now as fully fleshed out people as anyone could hope to see in a contemporary movie. In fact, watching them spark off of each other is such a treat that once the series comes to an end, I would like to see them all work together on something else that didn’t involve them flinging spells and whatnot because of the effortless chemistry that they have developed between each other over the years.

Funny, enchanting, occasionally creepy and beautifully filmed (the cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel is perhaps the best of the entire series), this is the kind of full-blooded fantasy filmmaking that used to emerge when filmmakers were more interested in telling stories than in selling Happy Meals. In fact, once it finally comes to end, my guess is that most audience members, regardless of age, will want to do one of two things--see it again right at that moment or see the next one right at that moment. If I had to pick one Harry Potter film as the best of the bunch, it would be this one. The Half-Blood Prince is the purest example of virtuoso storytelling we have seen all summer and maybe all year joining a short list that includes Up and The Hurt Locker. 

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE © Warner Bros. Pictures Distribution
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2009 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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