The producers of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince probably could have just shown screen shots of the script as a film itself, and millions would still have flocked to the theaters. They could have "Twilighted" the film, which is a new word I just made up that means "to half-ass it," but the writers, director David Yates, actors, producers, and crew brought out all the stops for this game-changer within the Harry Potter franchise. Because let's face it, anytime you talk about Harry Potter, you've got A LOT of people ready to judge you.
I say game-changer because Half-Blood Prince was really a transitional part in the series that switches from mostly talking about the big bad Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) to finding something that can take him down. But that's getting further ahead. Let's take a look at the series of events in this near three-hour flick. Some spoilers to be had below, unfortunately, so if you're one of the handful of people in the world that haven't yet seen this, venture cautiously.
After learning that "neither [Harry nor Lord Voldemort] can live while the other survives" in Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his mates are back at Hogwarts for their sixth year. But not before Harry takes a quick detour with Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) to entice former Potions Master Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent, The Damned United) to come back to the school. But Dumbledore has an ulterior motive. In his old days at Hogwarts, Slughorn also taught a young Voldemort, known then as Tom Riddle, and shared with Slughorn key information that could help Harry and Dumbledore take down Voldemort. Dumbledore has tasked Harry with the task of finding the truth from Slughorn. And it's about time, too, because Voldemort's cast of Death Eaters has begun wreaking havoc in the muggle world as much as the wizarding one.
As for the curious "half-blood prince," in his new Potions class, Harry is forced to borrow an old textbook that is property of said half-blood prince. Following the prince's notations scrawled in the book's margins, Harry becomes a whiz at Potions, much to the dismay of Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), who excels in every subject. Harry is so good that he even wins a vial of Felix Felicis, or liquid luck, for his potion-making prowess. Meanwhile, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) continues to play both sides of the fence--being a devoted servant of the Dark Lord and the intimidating professor, this year chosen to finally step into the Defense Against the Dark Arts class (to everyone's surprise). Severus is asked to help Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) complete a mysterious mission given to him by the Dark Lord himself. Harry knows something's going on with Draco, who is uncharacteristically quiet and lacks his typical zeal for making Harry's life miserable, but he has no proof. Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione doubt his assertions, but when cursed objects start popping up and endangering lives, Harry immediately accuses Draco. But with no evidence, Harry is left to wonder what Draco's up to.
None of this takes into account the love lives of all of the main characters, which is to be expected in a teenage sleep-away camp such as Hogwarts. Ron begins dating Lavender Brown, which saddens Hermione (a feeling that confuses Ron, of course), and Harry's feelings for Ron's sister Ginny begin to bloom. But the romance is just one ingredient to the drama that plays out in Hogwarts as Harry works with Dumbledore to determine where Voldemort has hidden his horcruxes--objects imbibed with a piece of Voldemort's soul. While they exist, Voldemort is virtually invincible. Voldemort didn't even appear in this film, but his cast of Death Eaters made his presence known throughout the movie. In fact, returning one night from a run to find a potential horcrux (a process that weakened Dumbledore), Harry and Dumbledore find that members of the Dark Lord's crew have infiltrated the castle, destroying the great hall and other buildings for one reason: to see that Draco succeeds in his given task. But does he manage it? The particularly poignant end left many fans muttering about allergies as they wiped their eyes in the theater.
This installment of the series found many central characters trying on new aspects of their personas and doing it well: Draco, formerly cocky was sullen and scared; Dumbledore, wizarding master and Harry's rock who could always help him depended on Harry while he was weak in mind and body looking for horcruxes; and Hermione, always confident and logical played the jealous, heartbroken girl. In the case of Dumbledore's changed personality, it was almost scary when he began begging Harry to help him as the headmaster forgot his power and place in the world. As a viewer, you began to worry that if Dumbledore, one of the most powerful wizards, was whimpering like a young child, something was seriously amiss. For as clunky and underwhelming as his effort in the last film was, Yates directs this with a brilliance that can only come from the familiarity of the characters' emotions and subject matter, and might be one of the best presentations of the Harry Potter world yet. Artistically produced scenes and high-quality acting bring Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince a universal appeal that is not restricted to films with a mostly young-adult cast. Of course, it helps that many of these folks involved in the production of the film have worked together for nearly a decade. That camaraderie connects and flows on the screen like the intricate switches seen installed in the Goblin Vault door seen so many films ago. Simply put, this film is so good that the 2:39 run time is almost sad. Bring me more Harry Potter!
The Blu-ray Disc:
Warner trots out another VC-1 encoded 2.40:1 1080p high-definition presentation for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and again the results are excellent. The colors vary a bit, mixing bright outdoor lights or softer indoor ones easily without little in the way of image noise or oversaturation. Flesh tones look realistic and blacks are deep throughout virtually the entire film, save for a minor bout of crushing near the end. Warner continues to do outstanding work with one of their crown jewels, and this is no exception.
Improved from its predecessor's Dolby TrueHD track, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround track is outstanding. Dialogue is crisp with no adjustment to speak of, directional activity and channel planning is both abundant and effective, and the early sequence when the Death Eaters wreak havoc is among the best I've listened to in recent memory, with the subwoofer gets loads of time to work out. The soundstage is broad and inviting, and juggles all of the action effortlessly, and the soundtrack makes you feel like you're part of the action from the get go. Great work by Warner.
Like the previous editions, Warner has ported the supplements from the the previous release and put their usual Ultimate Edition extras on here and called it a day. There are the requisite lenticular (on the front) and character (Umbridge and Luna Lovegood) cards to go with a 48-page booklet that includes pictures from the film's visual effects, and a digital download code to boot. Disc One has switched over to a Maximum Movie Mode (from the usual In-Movie Experience) which is a little boring to be honest. There are side by side visual comparisons to an effects-heavy sequence or some production stills looking at the new or existing sets. There are also voiceover interviews with the cast and crew. And as per usual Warner includes Focus Points that can be played within the track or separately (14, 37:46), and they're more informative, including thoughts on the franchise and the character he plays from Broadbent along with a little more detail in the more elaborate scenes. The visual effects, production design and creature creation are all given their due attention as well.
Disc Two starts with its own portion of the "Creating the World of Harry Potter" making-of looks through these Ultimate Editions, this one focuses on the 'Magical Effects' (1:04:09). In it the viewer looks at effects both practical and computer generated, with oodles of animatic and previsualization footage for the CG scenes. Even the sound effects are given some screen time within the feature. When it's convenient in the piece there are some visual effects scene breakdowns shown and the advantage using multiple effects approaches in a scene or scenes. I didn't get a kick out of it due to the technical nature of some of the material, but it's worth checking out. Another one of the "Behind the Magic" (46:50) sequences is here, with the British television host/presenter actually landing an on-screen role as an extra for the film while he gets to interview the cast about the story and get their thoughts about it.
The most interesting piece for me was "A Year in the Life" (49:46), which was a biographical piece on J.K. Rowling which led up to (and followed shortly thereafter) the release of the final book in the series. We see Rowling physically complete the book and the logistics for a midnight release reading are discussed, and she talks about growing up with her sister and how the themes in her life helped shape the books. I was surprised at the level of candor Rowling shared for this feature which presumably also aired on British television, and if you've ever heard or wondered about Rowling and the success of the books, it's bound to get answered here, it's a fascinating viewing. Next up is "Close Ups With the Cast" (28:34), where the cast meet with various crew members to find out more about what they do and how they do it. "One-Minute Drills" (6:45) includes the cast as they attempt to sum up their respective character's backstories in 60 seconds, while "What's On Your Mind?" (6:43) is hosted by Felton as he finds out each star's favorite food, person, what have you. There is a promotional reel of film highlighting the Universal Orlando "Wizarding World of Harry Potter" (11:40) which, from personal experience is pretty cool to go to, while there is some footage from the first Deathly Hallows film included (1:50). Eight deleted scenes (6:51) are forgettable along with five interstitials (4:14). Three trailers and a teaser round out this set.
As much as I was disappointed by Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince redeemed things for me and knocked it out of the park in a big way. The story and performances are engaging and engrossing and technically it's superb. It's a little weak on the extras side, but it's a forgivable sin for a film that while being one of eight, could stand out on its own.