The Harry Potter films thrive amidst a select group of Teflon franchises– films that no matter their quality, earn huge openings and– regardless of any universal love– longtail their way to a tidy sum. And while the Potter films have never been terrible, their page to celluloid translations have always trended toward book-loyalty to a plodding fault. Eight years and five films later, Harry Potter’s cinematic legacy has finally birthed an entry that transcends its dedicated followers to deliver a compelling movie to non-Potter fans; but with 10+ hours and a litany of characters in back story, may require some fan base espoused history to play catch-up.
No need for a historiography. Harry Potter‘s core has always been about three pals: Hermione, Potter and Ron- with each new story reveal punctuated by mysteries inevitably linked to the omnipresent threat of series villain Dark Lord Voldemort’s return. Harry and his pals are the magical cousins to the Scooby-Doo gang- pals who use magic, adults and being in the right place at the right time to reveal a party pooper in every episode.
In the Half-Blood outing, set against a backdrop of growing evil and ripened teen hormones, Harry Potter finds himself pining for Ginny Weasley while buddy Ron Weasley pining for Hermione Granger (and vice versa). It’s also Harry’s sixth year at Hogwarts and Master Wizard Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) has enlisted the help of new professor Horace Slughorn (quirkily and delightfully played by Jim Broadbent) at Hogwarts, thanks to a memory only Slughorn carries– one Dumbledore believes is the key to frustrating Voldemorts plans. In the mean time, Harry’ permanently scowling nemesis Draco Malfoy pines for dark recognition and has been enlisted as an assassin by Voldemort himself while finding resented protection/aid by the oily is-he-good-or-bad Professor Snape. Of course, Harry Potter is charged unlocking Slughorn’s secret, subsequently allowing the audience to spend more time with the genesis of “You Know Who”. Between lovelorn angst, death threats, carrying the weight of being “The Chosen One”, Harry’s got a crapload to worry about.
Amid a summer of pop action, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince feels far weightier and thoughtful than its competition. And while the Voldemort plot thread continues to drag its feet toward a true climax, the interpersonal relationships make up for the dilly-dallying and pick up the “get to the point!” slack in the interim. The primary actors, once young and overachievingly emotive when compared to seasoned adult counterparts Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman and the late Richard Harris, have since slipped into comfortable comradery and acting skill.
Thanks to the dictates of the books, Half-Blood Prince continues to take its sweet time, but is the first to actually carry a sense of real dread. It’s a transition– an insightful reflection on when the youthful wonder of the world gives way to sinister, more threatening realities. Half-Blood Prince is the darkest of the Potter films so far and effectively plays to its nature again and again. Dumbledore and Potter navigate their way into a dark seaside cave and into an inky, ancient expanse reminiscent of Fellowship of the Rings gloomy Mines of Moria and when dark clouds gather in the shape of a gaping skull as Dumbledore tells Harry to hide amidst slamming doors and heavy footsteps, the film capably expands on that fear and doom like no other Potter film before it.
Shot in beautiful gothic drabs and wide shots, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is the most visually rich entry since Prisoner of Azkaban. Director David Yates also allows the angsty turmoil of teens in love and life to flirt more effectively than its secondarily loved heir: Twilight. Given room to breath and build over the series, Half-Blood’s romantic joinings feel like the next logical step for its primary characters– not something shoe-horned in with an expectation of believability based on “because the movie says so”. When Hermione sobs on an abandoned staircase after witnessing Ron snogging an overly possessive tart, her frustrated and conflicted reaction over seeing him again carries relevance and real-world emotional heft. Like most rash decisions, she drives him away in an attempt to show she cares and wants his attention.
Having only read through book four before tiring of the series, the Potter films have always felt like a dull rehash. In a summer full of the regular fare, this entry feels refreshingly new, alive and full of of dark portent. As cliche as it sounds, this is Harry Potter’s Empire Strikes Back– and is more interesting thanks to its dark and layered turn.
And so, after five middling attempts, welcome to the world of relevance, Potter. Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince is a satisfying success.