One would think that by the time we've gotten to the sixth instalment in a fantasy series that basically has the same formula each time, that we'd have gotten bored by it now. But somehow they find a way to compel and enthral each and every time with Harry Potter. For the first four movies it was all about the wonders of the magic and action, showing off the different spells and wondrous creatures that inhabit the world first created by J.K. Rowling on page and successfully translated to the big screen.
But just these last two movies, the Order of the Phoenix and the Half-Blood Prince, it's been more about the characters and how they deal with the things going on around them. Even if the sixth movie isn't my personally favourite of the bunch (that would be the Prisoner of Azkaban), it's probably technically the best. An utterly compelling and engaging fantasy tale with gorgeous visuals, but most of all it shows that the series has grown since its big-screen inception, and matured into a film that adds real drama to the fantasy.
As always, this instalment in the Harry Potter franchise picks up with the titular character a short time before he and the rest of the young witches and wizards return for yet another year at Hogwarts. Once there, in a potion lesson with the newest professor at the school, Horace Slughorn, Harry finds an old book that has a mysterious written note inside that reads, "Property of the Half-Blood Prince." This allows Harry, with the help of Professor Dumbledore, to learn more about Lord Voldemort's dark and mysterious past.
What may surprise a lot of people about Harry Potter's latest instalment is how lacking it is in the action department. There are certainly a few instances of this, one in particular that appears so early on it's practically a substitute for opening credits, but for the most part this is a character-driven film, those which just happen to inhabit this wondrous world of magic. But this isn't something that should be viewed as a negative, quite the opposite, in fact. It's just one of the many aspects that proves that this isn't magical child's play any more. This is a realistic (as realism goes within a world filled with witches and wizards) and what feels like a very sincere movie. It's also the least showiest film of the six so far, where it's less about the chaos going on and more about how that chaos affects the people involved.
Most of the Harry Potter movies so far have had at least a 130-minute runtime, and it has often been a detail that has hindered the film's by causing them to drag (particularly towards the beginning, before the main thrust of the story is introduced). The sixth film follows suit, at a fairly lengthy 153 minutes long. But it's a credit to the filmmakers that the pace of the film makes that runtime zip along; the film feels like it's barely started before we're more than half way through.
It must be admitted that to really "get" the Half-Blood Prince, you need to be familiar with the overall story and mythology of the Harry Potter universe. Although I personally haven't read the books, the previous films have done a great job being their own entities without need prior knowledge of what J.K. Rowling originally wrote. There are many threads that are picked up on from the previous movies, and many that are set up to be picked up later on in the concluding film(s). But this is something that makes Harry Potter stand out amongst other fantasy series – every detail and thread of story included at any point will end up being tied together, soon or later.
The dark tone and nature of the film (which has become apparent more and more as the series has went on) might not end up being rated the highest for the younger kids in the audience, but, again, it keeps the series in a more mature frame of mind. Director David Yates' style, along with the washed out cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (newcomer to the series), gives the film a strange, alluring look. When you consider the bright, colourful, almost dazzling style of the first film, you can clearly see how far the series has come in eight years.
The dark tone that makes up most of the film is contrasted by the lightheartedness of some of the character interaction moments. The "young love" vein that's been running throughout most of the series is in full effect here when the issue of, for example, the jealously felt by Hermione towards Ron when he acquires a new annoyingly infatuated girlfriend. The movie, perhaps, spends a little too much time on the romance between the characters which impedes on the otherwise enjoyable pace.
The film spends less time on introducing new things, particularly characters (save for Jim Broadbent's hugely entertaining Horace Slughorn), and more on spending time with those we've come to know over the years. Particularly Michael Gambon as Dumbledore and Alan Rickman as Snape. Not to give too much away, but they both play a bigger part in the overall story than they ever have before, and the great performances from both (especially Rickman) allow for a case of, "the more, the better."
There's not much different when it comes to the three leads other than Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, who gets to do a bit more heavy lifting than he has before, which is not a surprise considering this requires more dialogue and character interaction than it does magic-filled wizard battles. Emma Watson has always been enjoyable as Hermione Granger and she continues to deliver on that here, and Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley provides (amongst other things) his usual comic relief moments, only this time in greater numbers.
The ending to the film has reportedly been changed quite dramatically from the book. To Harry Potter purists this may be the gravest of sins and infinitely infuriating to witness, but anyone who only knows Mr. Potter from the movies will not bat an eyelid. To even hint at any specific details of what concludes the Half-Blood Prince would completely waste it for those who want to remain in the dark before they see it fall themselves. But needless to say it's shocking that they have the guts to actually go ahead with something like it, with it leaving you questioning what the next movie will be like.
The fact that they're splitting the last instalment in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, into Part 1 and 2 perhaps takes a bit of the juice out of the Half-Blood Prince in that it's no longer the penultimate movie. But nonetheless it showed be viewed on its own, and as it is it's the technically best movie of the franchise so far. Never is it a boring watch, and it's always a compelling one with a doze of everything from fantasy and magic to playful character interactions and the inclusion of dark and mature themes that go beyond the world of fantasy and resonate in real life.
Who knew when we started off at the Philosopher's Stone some eight years ago we'd get to such an interesting, grown-up point as the Half-Blood Prince? This is a franchise that should have grown tired long ago, but by them making it consistently this good, it's no wonder audiences keep coming back for more.