Sunday, July 19, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince / *** (PG)

Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliffe
Hermione Granger: Emma Watson
Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint
Professor Albus Dumbledore: Michael Gambon
Professor Horace Slughorn: Jim Broadbent
Ginny Weasley: Bonnie Wright
Draco Malfoy: Tom Felton
Professor Severus Snape: Alan Rickman
Bellatrix Lestrange: Helena Bonham Carter
Luna Lovegood: Evanna Lynch
Lavender Brown: Jessie Cave
Cormac McLaggen: Freddie Stroma

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by David Yates. Written by Steve Kloves. Based on the book by J.K. Rowling. Running time: 153 min. Rated PG (for scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality).

The opening sequence of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” gave me the distinct impression that second time Potter director David Yates (“The Girl in the Cafe”) is a fan of anther Warner Bros. franchise, the “Superman” series. During the thrilling opening, three black clouds of smoke race through London—first the London of the real world, known as the Muggle world in the Potter universe, then into the magic world. The three clouds cause mayhem and terror everywhere they go, materializing in an explosion at a magic shop into three imposing dark figures reminiscent of General Zod and his followers from “Superman II”. Later in the film, the adolescent wizard hero Harry Potter and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry superintendant Professor Albus Dumbledore visit a lair of the series’ villain, Lord Voldemort, which looks remarkably similar to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

What impact do the image parallels with the “Superman” films have on the Harry Potter universe? Not much beyond the fact that they indicate that like “Superman” the Harry Potter series is an incredible showcase of movie magic that exemplifies the best special effects-laden entertainment placed on the foundation of great ideas and characters. Many complained that the fifth Potter film skimped on its developmental elements in favor of the special effects and action. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is a return to form for the series—probably due to the return of screenwriter Steve Kloves (“Wonder Boys”)—with the characters back in the foreground and a plot that embraces the same mystery elements featured in each Harry Potter episode without pushing the characters beyond their motivations.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe, “December Boys”) has found his celebrity status elevated even above his fame from previous films as Voldemort’s return was confirmed at the end of the previous adventure, legitimizing Harry’s claims. “The Half-Blood Prince” continues to bring our hero down a very dark path, but much of the wonder and charm of the series has found its way back into the mix as Harry’s two best friends Ron (Rupert Grint, “Driving Lessons”) and Hermione (Emma Watson, ”The Tale of Despereaux”) explore teen infatuation and their own hidden feelings for each other. Harry also feels the pangs of love with some fairly touching romantic developments between him and Ron’s younger sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright). Honestly, their flirtings were so gently handled, I would have liked to see more of Ginny just to witness their sweet relationship.

More so than anything else, this Potter focuses on Harry’s relationship and partnership with his mentor and protector, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, “Layer Cake”). Dumbledore hasn’t had this much of a presence in any of the previous films. His authority has always been an anchoring spirit in the series, and its good to see him take a more active role in events. He insists upon his own insignificance compared to Harry’s, but it’s hard to imagine Harry’s magic containing the power and confidence of Dumbledore’s.

As for the titular Half-Blood Prince, his identity is the great mystery of the story. Harry’s personal nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton, “The Disappeared”) is recruited by the evil Death Eaters—who work in the service of Voldemort—for a special assignment. Harry is suspicious of Malfoy’s behavior, but has his own assignment from Dumbledore to learn a secret about Voldemort known only to the eccentric Professor Horace Slughorn. In order to get in Slughorn’s graces, Harry utilizes the notes of the mysterious Half-Blood Prince to ace Slughorn’s potions class. I would not think to reveal the identity of the half-blood, but it tears at the fabric of all we may think we know of Harry’s world.

It helps that the only new major character this time around is Slughorn. Once again the casting of Jim Broadbent (“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”) in the role proves that casting director Fiona Weir has the magic touch for finding just the right actors to enhance this fantastical world. There are a few new minor characters that are barely introduced, which may leave some fans of the books disgruntled. In terms of the movies however, this one is more connected with its subjects than any of the other movies. It makes for a somewhat slower adventure, but satisfying in that the characters come first.

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” plays like a set up to the finale in the next two films based on the final book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows”. This makes it a little less urgent than previous films that each had a self-contained story to tell. But it also leaves the audience with a cliffhanger that makes it easy to understand why Warner Bros. felt it was necessary to delay this movie by six months in order to have a shorter wait until the release of the final two films.

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