Like J.K. Rowling's book, Half-Blood Prince is by far the most plotless entry in the Harry Potter series — the first three were basically structured as magical Hardy Boys mysteries, while Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix had the immediate at-school threats of the Triwizard Tournament and Dolores Umbridge, but this one pretty much consists of Harry researching Voldemort's background interspersed with romantic vignettes and some Quidditch and Draco Malfoy up to something creepy. It's a work of mood and character until the story finally kicks in in the final forty minutes, and Hogwarts itself has appropriately transformed into something so wholly removed from the bright, fun, goofy magical playground of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone it's difficult to place them in the same series; it's all long hallways and gothic architecture splayed with eerie shadows, uninviting and cold.
I wasn't the biggest fan of director David Yates's hyper-compression of the material in Order of the Phoenix, but he actually won me over with this movie's gorgeous sets and cinematography, easily among the year's best thus far. I was incredibly taken by the way one encounter between Harry and Draco in the bathroom is so starkly lit it appears to be all but black-and-white, and Yates has also done the miraculous I didn't believe could be done and filmed the series' first engaging Quidditch match (although that might be because it focuses on the flying rugby aspect of the game rather than the interminably boring Snitch-chasing). Other than a few water zombies near the end that look a little too much like Gollums, this is a visually impressive film.
The teen romance that peeked its head out in the fourth film and announced its arrival in the fifth truly explodes here. I didn't time it or anything but I think it might take up more screentime than any other plot thread; make no mistake, the sixteen-year-olds of Hogwarts are horny. I always liked the Harry / Ginny love story and while Rupert Grint and Emma Watson don't have that much romantic chemistry (in all fairness, Ron and Hermione didn't really have all that much as written by Rowling either) it's still exciting to see the kids originally cast nearly a decade ago all in their original roles. Having seen them grown up since they were little prepubescent elementary schoolers makes every triumph and failure that much more personal for the audience.
But while the teen romance is cute and all I would have happily ditched ten minutes of it for ten more minutes of Voldemort backstory; while both have obviously been truncated from the 652-page source novel it feels like a much bigger percentage of teen romance made the cut than Voldemort, and I'm frankly much more interested in the latter. What's there is well done — Voldemort as child and teen Tom Riddle — but I was disappointed to see the scene removed where an adult (but not yet fully snakeified) Voldemort applies for a teaching position at Hogwarts and has what is basically a job interview with Albus Dumbledore. After seeing Michael Gambon and Ralph Fiennes try to murder each other as Dumbledore and Voldemort at the end of Order of the Phoenix it would have been a thrill to see them have that tensely and coldly pleasant interaction. It wasn't essential but I was bummed they cut it and think it's a little lame that boring side character Lavender Brown has four times as much screentime as Lord Voldemort.
It's still the Slytherins that end up dominating Half-Blood Prince though. Draco Malfoy really emerges as a three-dimensional character and his actor Tom Felton, although I've never seen him in anything except Harry Potter movies, steps up to the task and arguably out-acts all his teen co-stars. He might actually be my favorite character in the movie.
Meanwhile, Jim Broadbent gives one of the series' best performances as new professor Horace Slughorn, and you can feel the relief of Alan Rickman (who was indisputably the saving grace of the first two films) as Snape finally gets to do something more than sneer at Harry Potter in the third act. As with the book, it's pretty lame that after five years of buildup we don't even get to see him teach Defense Against the Dark Arts, but Rickman still dominates every frame he's in.
Once the word "horcrux" is uttered, it's like the movie abruptly remembers it has a plot, and we immediately snap into third act / climax mode. I really liked the design of Voldemort's creepy lake-cave, and the scene where the water zombies pull Harry down into the depths was eerie and tense enough that I remembered with a chuckle the retarded, weight-and-tension-free duel with the CGI Basilisk at the end of Chamber of Secrets. I wasn't sure about the scene where Dumbledore has to drink the potion, but then again, I thought that scene was really weird in the book too (in the "what the fuck?" way of weird, not the creepy and cool way).
As for Dumbledore's legendary death scene, I thought it was handled pretty well. I'd be curious to hear how anyone who didn't know it was coming felt about it, but sadly, I doubt there is anyone like that. Anyone who reads my blog anyway. I didn't much like how they cut out the fighting in Hogwarts afterwards. Yates says it was to "keep the powder dry" for the Battle of Hogwarts at the end of the saga, but I don't see how three minutes of wizards flinging spells at a few Death Eaters would have overwhelmed an epic war sequence that will probably last at least half an hour. But although I don't remember if it's in the book or made up for the movie, I did like the scene around Dumbledore's corpse where all the wizards raise their wands and one by one punch the sunlight through the dark mark.
Oh, and while it will be super-lame if Dumbledore's funeral is cut out of the series, I'm going to go out on a limb and bet they open Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with it. So I won't gripe just yet.
All in all, I would put Half-Blood Prince about on par with the occasionally nonsensical but fast-paced and entertaining Goblet of Fire and above the overly-gutted Order of the Phoenix, but still a bit below the very entertaining Prisoner of Azkaban (and, of course, we won't discuss the first two films). Like the novel it's more a prequel to the final chapter and our last bout of character and relationship development than a true, full-blooded (pun?) Harry Potter mystery of its own, but I enjoyed it for sure. Looking forward to the conclusion.
3 Stars out of 5