Rated PG for scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was arguably the best of the series and one of the best movies so far this year.
It is year 6 at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. When we last saw Harry and the gang, the Ministry of Magic had finally realized that Lord Voldemort had returned to full power. Now, it is all the Ministry can do to stop him. However, Headmaster Dumbledore has more than a few tricks up his sleeve. He enlists Harry's help in getting an old Professor to return to the school. Harry agrees, thinking Professor Slughorn will be taking the now vacant Defense Against the Dark Arts post. But little does Harry and his friends know, that it is Professor Snape who finally gets his wish and is given the job instead. But when Harry finds a Potions book that belonged to someone named the Half-Blood Prince, he uses the writings inside to get to the top of the class. Meanwhile, Dumbledore has been mysteriously leaving the grounds of the school and when Harry asks why, Dumbledore reveals why Harry was enlisted to bring Slughorn back - he has information that is crucial to the downfall of Voldemort. At the same time, Ron and Hermione's relationship takes a turn for the worse when Ron starts to make eyes at another girl. And what will Ron say when he finds out about his little sister Ginny's boyfriends? Trouble hits close to home when there are attacks at Hogwarts, which ultimately leads to a startling revelation about a member of the Order of the Phoenix along with the death of a key figure in the fight against Voldemort. Life for Harry, Ron, Hermione and the rest of the wizarding world will never be the same.
I will, once again, fully admit that I am biased when it comes to the Harry Potter. I recently went back and re-read all seven books, and in anticipation of the Half-Blood Prince, this past weekend I re-watched all five movies. But I honestly believe that not only was this movie arguably the best of the series (running neck and neck with Prisoner of Azkaban) but it was by itself a great movie. Obviously it helps if you're a fan and know the characters inside and out, but the filmmakers did a really good job making this a standalone movie as well. The first thing that strikes you about the film are the visuals. After watching now six movies in three days, you get a real feel for each filmmakers take on the story. The first two films were definitely geared towards kids. They were bright and fresh and lighthearted - an introduction to the series. The third film started to become darker with films four and five really turned dark. Part four was, to me, the weakest film because while visually entertaining, the staging of the film was weaker. It almost felt slapped together and I felt they changed too much of the story around. When David Yates took over for Order of the Phoenix there was a striking tonal shift. That movie played out almost like an indie film - very grainy and washed out and with a very hard edge. Half-Blood Prince leaves the graininess behind but adds in a very dark layer. The entire movie was bathed in grays and greens which gave the film a very depressed look. The overall story was sad (albeit with a lot of light moments) so the darkness of the visuals was appropriate. The story arc has been getting steadily and steadily more serious and it all comes to a huge climax here. For a PG rated film, there are a lot of dark and scary moments, but all in all, not a lot of violence or bloodshed.
**SPOILER WARNING - Skip to The Bottom Line if you don't want to know anything about the story**
If you're a fan of the books you will notice a lot of differences between the book and the movie, but at the same time, they do manage to keep a lot in. As I was mentioning to the friend I saw the movie with, they get from point A to point B like the books, but they just have a different way of getting there. For instance, in the book Dumbledore goes to Harry's Aunt and Uncle's house to pick him up. In the movie, he finds Harry in a diner. Would I have liked to have seen the entire sequence at the Dursley's? Of course, but then again, I'd like this movie to be about 6 hours long. When Ron and Lavender get together, it's because Lavender basically throws herself at him. In the book of course, Ron runs to Lavender's open arms because he's pissed off that everyone has already snogged someone and he hasn't. I thought on the whole, the movie did a good job in keeping with the book's storyline even if it went off track once or twice. There is a scene that was added specifically for the film, where the Death Eaters attack The Burrow. It was added in to show that Harry wasn't safe anywhere. I'm not sure what that does for the rest of the films but it added some good action to the middle of the movie.
Speaking of action, there really wasn't much in the film. This film could really be classified more as a drama with some action and comedic sequences. It really is a moody film and mostly about relationships. Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione, Harry and Dumbledore, Snape and Dumbledore, Harry and Malfoy, Harry and Hermione... the movie spends a lot of time examining how everyone interacts with each other and how important relationships are. Although we know and love all these characters, we always saw them more in the context of fighting Voldemort. And we also saw all of them more with how they related to Harry. Here, for the first time, the secondary characters really get their due. Malfoy especially gets front and center treatment as his story line is shown a lot more than in the books. Since Harry Potter is in the title of all the books and movies, he's obviously the most important person there is, but when you're reading the books, all the other characters have stories that don't make it into the film. I was happy here for instance to see Ron's stint on the Quidditch team was shown, including his battle against Cormac McLaggen = both for the Keeper position and for Hermione's heart. Ginny's character also stepped up more in this film, making her almost on equal footing with the big three of Harry, Ron and Hermione. The filmmakers did a really good job packing a lot in to the 153 minute running time.
And lest you think the entire movie is dark and depressing, there were a lot of humorous moments as well. I thought Jim Broadbent as Professor Slughorn was a tremendous addition to the cast. He was equal parts frightened of his past, and comical in his adoration for Harry. Ron and Lavender's entire relationship was pretty funny as well. And just the character's interactions with each other were much more lighthearted and, well, normal. It honestly felt for the first time like these guys were all really good friends, and not just people randomly thrown together into bizarre situations. While the cinematic styling of Prisoner of Azkaban will likely always keep that movie at the top of my list (especially after watching them all in succession), I have to say that the Half-Blood Prince comes really close to making me feel like I really was in the middle of a magical world.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So overall, I loved Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. From a fan standpoint, it had everything you loved about the books, even if it took a different route in getting there. From a film standpoint, it was beautifully shot, with great scene staging and it kept up a really solid pace. There wasn't as much action in this one, but the story and the character interactions makes up for the lack of explosions. Truly the best movie of the year so far.