Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

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Bonnie Wright and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Photo: Warner Bros.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince isn’t a misstep in the Harry Potter franchise as much as it is the slow build to an extremely entertaining conclusion to one of the better fantasy stories to be told. As a matter of fact, the Potter films have become such comfortable and routine releases I think it would be impossible to outright disappoint the audience unless the filmmakers actively tried. Half-Blood Prince, however, is particularly unique as I would say it turns the corner on the franchise for the first time since Prisoner of Azkaban did back in 2004. Director David Yates has kept his washed out color-palette from Order of the Phoenix, but the mood of the film has certainly changed as our characters move beyond adolescence and the clouds on the horizon get even more sinister.

Don’t let the PG-rating fool you into thinking this film shies away from the darker elements of J.K. Rowling’s sixth book, in fact, in terms of presentation this is the darkest Potter film to date. Death is around every corner and anyone could be next. However, as a counter-balance, and to ensure the 153 minute run-time isn’t a complete funeral procession, Half-Blood Prince has some of the most comical writing the franchise has offered so far.

The story begins just moments after the battle between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) at the end of Order of the Phoenix. With confirmation the Dark Lord has returned, Voldemort’s faithful subjects (known as Death Eaters) aren’t afraid to let themselves be known by raising havoc across the land. At the same time Harry has been recognized as the Chosen One, a.k.a. the one that must face Voldemort in an epic battle of magic, and as a result his fame has grown, but he has duties he must attend to. Duties designated by Dumbledore as well as by his maturity.

While Dumbledore and Harry bounce around time and space through the use of stored memories detailing clues from the past, and manipulation to get the information they need to learn of Voldemort’s secret for eternal life, Half-Blood Prince is a story of maturation. Harry’s quiet fascination with Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) is instantly noticeable all while the untold desires Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) share for one another continue to blossom. There’s a whole lot of “snogging” as love-potions enchant the mind and jealousy bubbles to the surface causing tears and bedside comforting. I would go so far as to say Yates could have actually cut back on the relationship story-telling a tad as it does get a bit repetitive, but if he had he wouldn’t have been left with much as “Half-Blood Prince” is one of the more sparse novels in Rowling’s Potter stories. This story serves as more of a developmental and maturation place-holder for her characters rather than a fantasy epic of spells and curses, but that isn’t to say those don’t have a place here.

The newest and most notable addition in this installment is Jim Broadbent as Professor Slughorn. Broadbent is a welcome newcomer just as is every new participant in this franchise with casting that has never skipped a beat. A perfect example would be Evanna Lynch as the colorful Luna Lovegood, a character and performance even better than it was in Order of the Phoenix, making me wish she were the more prominent female in the franchise rather than Hermione. Speaking of characters I would like to see more of, Alan Rickman as Severus Snape (in my opinion the greatest character in the Potter universe) has more to do this time around and, as always, Rickman delivers his lines with his typical gruesome pauses, making them all the more memorable.

Beyond acting and directing, Half-Blood Prince is a marvel in terms of cinematography and production design. The sets are gorgeous and CGI landscapes don’t stand out as much as they blend in without a second thought. A wide shot toward the end of the film featuring Harry and Snape is as ominous as it is beautiful and this film is packed with similar settings. More than once I sat back and marveled at the scenery and whole-heartedly enjoyed the opening moments as Death Eaters swarmed into frame as spindly black clouds that would put any 3-D film I have ever seen to shame. While I don’t believe Half-Blood Prince is the most engaging story in the Potter franchise, what it lacked in story it made up for in spectacle and character moments.

Everything said, I never thought J.K. Rowling’s sixth book would make for all that captivating of a feature film. This story serves as more of a character building go-between prepping us for the two-part Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows rather than an action-based feature as the prior installments have been. This isn’t to say it’s necessarily a bad thing. I did enjoy myself and expect fans of the book to enjoy it as well, and those that get riled up by the personal relationships of Harry, Ron and Hermione will truly have a blast and perhaps dub this the best Potter yet.

Even though I wasn’t bowled over, Half-Blood Prince never felt like it was two-and-a-half hours long and I would have gladly sat through another five hours if parts one and two of Deathly Hallows were ready right now… As far as that goes, November 2010 can’t get here soon enough.

GRADE: B