The world of fantasy always had its doors slightly ajar for anyone who was curious enough to peek inside, but the genre was seemingly loaded with properties that were inaccessible to non-geeks. Yet, Harry Potter had to do little more than wave his wand with a flick of the wrist, and just like that, fantasy and magic were no longer the private domain of 'nerds' and 'dorks'. Everyone was enchanted by the boy wizard; soccer moms, businessmen, little kids, grandparents, goths, jocks, and the list just goes on. Harry Potter was no longer just a book or a film, it was a phenomenon. Unfortunately, that kind of success has a tendency to bring out the critic in everyone, inevitably causing their expectations to climb to unreachable heights. Everyone formulates their own ideas as to how certain plot points should unfold, what should happen to certain characters, and even how it should all come together in the end. That's the problem with turning such an accessible story into a mainstream success; imagination has a tendency to run wild, and this ultimately causes people to set themselves up for a letdown. That being said, I wasn't surprised to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince met with such a varying degree of criticism. It didn't follow the typical 'Potter formula' to further the saga's story and it was a great deal different than the book, but if you ask me, that's exactly why this film isn't a disappointment.
Hogwarts and its reputation are but a shadow of what they used to be. Once perceived to be the most whimsical and engaging institution for learning the magical arts, is now feared by many to be a riskier place to visit than perhaps even the likes of Azkaban prison. Everyone knows that Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters are out there somewhere, and being that it's no secret that Hogwarts will be housing the two individuals that are at the top of Voldemort's hit list (Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore), parents are afraid to let their children even attend the school this year. The most powerful spells that both wizard and wand can provide have sealed Hogwarts off from the world however, and not even those who possess the most intimate knowledge of the dark arts can gain entry into the castle. Despite Hogwarts name being soured from all the negative press, Dumbledore remains vigilant in his search for any information that could be useful against Voldemort. Looking through the memories of student turned dark wizard Tom Riddle, he stumbles upon one of particular interest that involves Professor Horace Slughorn. It should contain the definitive answer on how to destroy 'he who shall not be named' once and for all, but someone has seemingly tampered with the evidence. Once again, Dumbledore is forced to ask for Potter's assistance, this time to get close to Slughorn and uncover the truth. Time is of the essence however, as Draco Malfoy and Professor Snape seem to be plotting something devastating behind the scenes. Yes, the fate of the wizarding world rests on the shoulders of Harry, Ron, and Hermione once again, but as they near the end of their scholastic career at Hogwarts, hormonal explosions of jealousy and love prove to be quite the distraction.
"If it wasn't for the fact that I already read the book, I would have been completely lost."
This is a common complaint Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince shares with the last couple of films in the series, but I think the validity of this statement heavily depends on whether you're already familiar with the book or not. I actually didn't get a chance to read the book myself before seeing the film, and I never felt as if I was lost or missing out on any pertinent information at all. In fact, I thought it was the most powerful entry in the cinematic leg of the franchise thus far. Shortly after seeing the film in theaters however, I decided to pull the book off the shelf and finally give it a read. I'm not here to give a comparison review between book and film, but to simply say 'the movie changed a lot of things' would be a gross understatement. I simply couldn't believe how many scenes (and important ones at that) were omitted, not to mention all the various pieces of vital information that didn't make the cut. You'll find the rest of my review to be a fairly positive one, but it's worth noting that if I had read this book before seeing the movie, my perspective on this film could have been drastically different than it is today. Before moving on, I will say that there's still one thing that bothers me after having read the book, and it's the fact that the movie doesn't take the time to fill us in as to what the Half-Blood Prince is or why he's important to the rest of the story. Sure, the big reveal as to whom the Half-Blood Prince is remains intact, but we're not even told why that person is known as the Half-Blood Prince. This wouldn't be such a big deal if, you know, the movie wasn't called Harry Potter AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. It's truly baffling how they managed to drop the ball on that one...
Even though I've since been armed with a plethora of knowledge from J.K. Rowling's unquestionably superior novel, I still feel that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is amongst the best we've seen in the series yet. You'll notice right from the get go that this isn't your typical Harry Potter flick. Instead of trying to constantly win the audience over with magic induced shenanigans, the film instead works on moving the audience with a slowly building plot that's showcased in darkness. It seems that anything that could have been perceived as 'goofy' was removed from the script entirely; take for example the obnoxious Dursley family. It was a very wise move to separate Harry from the Dursleys this time around, because his newfound independence makes him seem worldlier, finally getting the necessary breathing room so he can become the wizard he's fated to be. Not to be left out, Ron and Hermione also seem to be catching up with their shadowed destiny. Ron finally begins to show some confidence, while after realizing she's falling for Ron, Hermione finds herself struggling with insecurity for the first time. These developments flesh out the characters and showcase the players acting abilities better than ever before. But these events, as well as those that revolve around Draco and Snape, bring out an obvious flaw in the film's pacing. Even though a large chunk of the book's storyline was left out for one reason or another, these plot points come off as feeling a little rushed. However, the central plot involving Harry, Dumbledore, and Slughorn, does a great job at making sure the damage caused by these underdeveloped ideas is minimal. It's their story that truly drives the film from beginning to end, as their job is to essentially remind us that although Voldemort is physically absent from this chapter in the saga, he's a much more dangerous foe than we ever could have imagined. Not to mention, keeping him in the shadows only adds to the film's darkness and mounting tension right up until the epic and anticlimactic end.
I'm sure it's hard for those who read The Half-Blood Prince first to make the disconnect between book and film, but I personally feel that all this movie really needed to do was stay in line with the continuity of the rest of the celluloid saga, and if you ask me, writer Steve Kloves and director David Yates have done that very well. The focus of the last couple of films has squarely set their sights on the return of Voldemort, so it's only appropriate this film continues down the path that was laid before it. Despite some of the apparent pacing issues The Half-Blood Prince has, it's still the most effective entry in terms of how it articulates its intended tone. What I find to be even more refreshing than the bleak vibe of the film, is its ability to convey the severity of what's going on with character development rather than major magic or fight sequences, and this ultimately enables the audience to become more emotionally involved with the story than ever before. I know some of you are probably saying, "But Michael, surely the missing details from the book will prove to be problematic when trying to translate The Deathly Hallows!" Although I can't deny it will be interesting to see how The Deathly Hallows handles bringing some of those missing details back into the mix, considering Kloves and Yates will be returning to develop the final story as two separate films however, I don't think this is a concern we can legitimize at this point in time. In the end, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is ultimately a mood setting piece for setting the final act. The wizarding world has been torn apart just by the mere shadow of Voldemort's return, and the film conveys that in a way that should make most Potter fans more than pleased.
The perception of this 1080p VC-1 encode (2.40:1) on the web has been sort of a mixed bag, but I really don't think the transfer is bad in any way, shape, or form. The director intended the picture to look extremely dark throughout the entirety of the film, and the muted color presentation only helps to further intensify that feeling of impending doom. Unfortunately, these stylistic choices can cause some minor issues to pop up, such as details being crushed in the shadows, as well a slight softening of the picture overall. Others have complained that the blacks on display aren't deep enough, at least compared with other mainstream Blu-ray titles. These issues echo what I had seen in theaters though, so the transfer definitely isn't to blame. These are stylistic choices that are meant to give the film a very specific tone, and considering how difficult it can be to make such a dark film without it turning into a grainy mess, the presentation of both film and transfer are excellent. There are a couple of brief occasions in the film where grain can look excessively noisy, but this film does appear to have a little bit of that 'processed' look to it anyway, so it's possible this method made the grain look too digitized for its own good. Other than that, there are a couple of very brief glimpses of banding.
Despite these extremely minor issues, there's no edge enhancement to worry about, contrast is impressive considering the look the director was trying to achieve, and picture clarity is superb. The directors intent is surely going to keep this from being a reference quality title for your home theater, but this transfer is an excellent representation of what was shown in theaters.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is simply stunning. Keeping in mind the dark tone of the film doesn't call for the sound design to be a powerhouse from beginning to end, Half-Blood Prince is mostly dialogue driven, and speech can be heard flawlessly no matter what's happening on the screen. As far as directional audio goes, quieter scenes always have pinpoint precision sounds providing impeccable ambience. Be it outside, in the halls of Hogwarts, or a joke shop with all the hustle and bustle an employer could only dream about, you're always going to feel like you're in the film. Louder sequences in the film are most impressive of all however, as they'll assault you with a surprisingly thunderous roar while making sure pinpoint precision doesn't lose its integrity for a second. There's a scene in the film where our two favorite wizards are in the middle of a swirling firestorm, and this showcases what lossless audio is all about with gusto. The dark tone of the film does a great job at pulling the audience within the story better than ever before, but the sound design is just as important when it comes to making sure the audience stays in the world Yates strived to provide. The audio on this release is flawless, and while the artistic intent on the video side might not warrant showing off your home theater system, the 'big' scenes in this film will certainly be calling from the shelf to make sure you use it for demo purposes on the audio side.
Maximum Movie Mode/Focus Points - I really have no idea what Warner Brothers was thinking when they decided to classify this supplement as the infamous 'Maximum Movie Mode', because this isn't it. Thanks to the innovative work that appeared on the Watchmen and Terminator Salvation Blu-ray releases, I was expecting the director to greet me as he stood in front of two high-def monitors, so he could talk to me about his film while interacting with it throughout. Instead, I was surprised to see a Picture-in-Picture track in its place. Surprisingly, I haven't seen a lot of outrage over this on the web thus far, and that leaves me scratching my head. Maximum Movie Mode should be a huge selling point considering how in-depth and entertaining the experience has been in the past, but apparently I can no longer count on what's advertised on the box to actually be what's on the disc. Frankly, as a consumer, I feel insulted that Warner Brothers would call this something it's not and hope I wouldn't notice or care. That being said, this is still much more entertaining than simply listening to an audio commentary for two and a half hours. The Picture-in-Picture track contains tons of Focus Point featurettes that can be accessed at various times throughout the film, animatics, interviews, production stills, concept art, and so much more. The Picture-in-Picture experience does leave some gaps throughout the film's runtime, but you'll easily be able to skip to the next section of supplemental content by pushing the directional button on your remote. Focus Points included are - The Millenium Bridge, Shooting on Location, Professor Slughorn, Building Relationships, Director David Yates Returns, Wool's Orphanage, Ron and Lavender's Kiss, The Burrow, Harry and Ginny's Kiss, Aragog Returns, Creating the Cave, Designing the Virtual Cave Environment, The Inferi, and Underwater Sequence, and can also be accessed via the main supplement menu as well.
First Footage from The Deathly Hallows - A nice introduction is followed by a teaser that's just under a minute in length. Don't expect to see all that much, but any Potter fan out there will probably be foaming at the mouth with anticipation after seeing what's here.
Close-Up with the Cast of Harry Potter - I was pleasantly surprised to find that these eight mini-featurettes didn't just sit down with the leading cast members so they could do self-serving promos for The Half-Blood Prince. Instead, they each sit down with different production departments, such as makeup, set design, stunts, editing and more, to ask questions and dissect all the little things that go into making a movie whole. This is a fun and refreshing take on showing the audience at home behind-the-scenes material, and shouldn't be missed by any Potter fan.
One Minute Drills - Many of the leading cast members (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, James Phelps, Oliver Phelps, Bonnie Wright, Tom Felton) are tasked with laying out their characters entire storyline (at least up until Half-Blood Prince) in a single minute. It's a fun and unexpected treat, but you probably won't find yourself watching through these again. Considering this only rings in at 7 minutes in length though, everyone should watch this at least once.
J.K Rowling - A Year in the Life - This is a very in-depth look at Rowling's life in general, but as expected, much of the focus is on her work with the Harry Potter franchise in its entirety... and I do mean its entirety. Those who haven't read the final book are warned at the beginning of this featurette that spoilers lie ahead, so nobody is in danger of having the saga ruined for them... unless they're just not paying attention to their television set while the warning is displayed. At 50 minutes in length, this is an intriguing look at the person who gave the world the timeless Harry Potter series, and every fan casual or otherwise should take the time to watch this.
What's on Your Mind? - Tom Fulton fires off questions to the main acting talent of Half-Blood Prince, giving them only enough time to give very short answers. This isn't really all that interesting, but kids might find the bite size Q&A formula to be more engaging than the usual behind-the-scenes content that would normally bore them to tears.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - This is basically a promotion piece for the upcoming Harry Potter attraction that will be running soon at Universal Orlando. At 12 minutes in length it serves as more than just a teaser, and it should entice every Potter fan enough to want to plan a trip to Florida shortly after it opens...
Additional Footage - There are eight deleted scenes presented here, and unlike most of the deleted scenes I've seen for various other films, they're actually all a pretty interesting watch. The final product had some pacing issues while trying to convey all of the side stories that accompany the slowly knit central plot, so it's hard to say if these scenes would have enhanced the movie or just weigh it down. In either event, these scenes out of context don't come off as uninteresting throw away material, so they're definitely a must for everyone to check out.
These extras are spread out over the first two discs in this set, while a standard definition DVD of the film is included as the third. And if that's not enough for you, a digital download code has also been included so you can enjoy this film on the go.
I could debate with the die-hards where this particular entry stands when compared with the rest of the celluloid franchise, but that would be just as fruitless as trying to debate religion or politics. Chances are your mind is already made up, and there's nothing I'll ever be able to say to change that. For me however, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince embodies the kind of film I've been waiting for all along. The central plot tip-toes along with caution, drawing strength from the evolving character storylines and Yates' moody stylistic design. This effectively stirs up dread and anxiety on a psychological level, and if you ask me, this is a welcome change from the CGI magic tricks that have entertained us thus far, because this actually makes Hogwarts and the rest of the wizarding world seem real for the very first time. Most of the Harry Potter films are very different from one another, so it's almost unfair to say definitively if this is the best one yet. What I will say however, is that this is the only Potter film that continued to resonate with me long after seeing it,even if it isn't 'perfect'. Despite all the changes that were made during the translation from book to film, you really need to take this film for what it is - a continuation of the film saga instead of an exact retelling of the book. If you read the book first, keep that in mind and you very well may find this to be one of the more enjoyable experiences you've had with the series yet. Furthermore, the video quality on this release is identical to what I had seen in theaters, the audio is demo worthy, and the extras are entertaining and informative. This is one of the easiest recommendations I've made in a while - highly recommended.