The last time we saw Harry Potter in action, he was engaged in war, suffering a great personal loss that would forever rob him of innocence and compassion toward his enemies. "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the sixth film of this long-standing franchise, replaces combat with the electrical storm of teen hormones. It's not as breakneck a change of pace as it sounds, but the new direction helps to further develop the Hogwarts gang past wands and wonder, finding fertile dramatic ground yet again to raise the stakes as Harry takes his first leap toward the ultimate showdown with his nemesis, Voldemort.
Shattered by his last encounter with his enemies, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has retreated to the Muggle world to collect his thoughts. Urged by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) to return to Hogwarts, Harry accepts the offer and is soon reunited with pals Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). Also encouraged to return to school is Potions Professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), who holds a special key to Voldemort's weakness in his collected memories. Harry, convinced by Dumbledore to retrieve Slughorn's secrets, uses a special potions book once owned by the mysterious Half-Blood Prince to excel in class, thus gaining access to his teacher's confidence. Along the way, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are confronted with an outbreak of romance at Hogwarts, longing to communicate their deepest expression of affection to those they've developed feelings for.
A television director with obscure credits to his name, David Yates took the "Potter" reins with the last installment, "Order of the Phoenix," and brought the series to an all-time high. He brilliantly wove teen angst, swelling dread, and special effect radiance into an exceptional sequel, finding his footing quickly. "Half-Blood Prince" returns Yates to the director's chair, only now there's little rage to exploit, and the luster has worn off the wide-eyed awe. "Prince" is the next logical step for the knotty "Potter" narrative, slamming the brakes on any violent momentum to dig around the hearts and minds of the characters.
There's no outrageous detour with "Prince" that would alienate fans of author J.K. Rowling's fantastical world. The "Potter" producers are smart enough not to upset the applecart at this point, providing a smooth transition away from the urgency of "Phoenix" to care for the adolescent curiosity of the Hogwarts class. Sacrifice comes with a narrowed dramatic scope, casting aside many of the familiar faces to keep attention locked on the primary narrative forces. "Prince" loses a warm feeling of academic community, especially during fleeting moments of classroom hijinks, but it's a necessary maneuver to break ground on the complex romantic construction needed to make the next two-parter feature (due out in 2010 and 2011) emotionally resonate.
Instead of Harry and the gang dealing with textbooks, they now have to fiddle with crushes and love potions, introducing such terms as "snogging" to a chiefly virginal demographic who adore these feature films. "Prince" finally does something with the flirtations between Ron and Hermione, allowing Grint and Watson an opportunity to tango with teen-centric stabs of petty jealousy and comical miscommunication. As always, the actors make pure joy out of their second-banana roles. Harry finds his wand glowing for Ron's little sister, Ginny, played wonderfully stuffed with guarded tenderness by Bonnie Wright. "Prince" locates streams of comedy to splash around in with the infatuation subplots, turning Hogwarts into a "Saved by the Bell" episode, through I cite that example with the best possible intent. After watching the actors mature throughout five previous films, it's a treat to see their flowering sexuality come to fruition in "Prince," though keeping to strict PG standards: lots of hand-holding, tearful frustration, and inarticulate professions of love.
Of course, there's evil lurking in the picture as well, and while Voldemort doesn't make an appearance this time around, the Death Eaters are well represented, led by hopping madwoman Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, stealing her scenes once again). Pulling Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton, finally permitted more acting than simple scowling) into the gang, the Death Eaters provide the essential tension, nursed gorgeously by Yates, who shows tremendous affection for their wicked, stormcloud-swirling ways. Even without big bad V around, "Prince" uncovers a great deal of suspense from Dumbledore's history with a young Tom Riddle, and how that unnerving union brought about unspeakable horrors. Gambon is a miracle in "Prince," articulating such vivid dimensions of sorrow and solitude for Dumbledore, encouraging Harry's development into a heroic hunter.
Welcoming the return of Luna Lovegood (how I adore this character), Quidditch, and everyone's favorite sourpuss, Snape (Alan Rickman), "Prince" stays firmly rooted in caloric Potterverse goodies. Yates once again brings out the best in the exposition-intense material, and while he's not permitted the same amount of apocalyptic fury as before, he stylishly crafts a consistent, riveting, and optically stupendous (cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is incredible) sequel that generously refreshes unions that have made the series an enduring pleasure.
However, there's a price to be paid for the sentimental sojourn: "Prince" is the first "Potter" film to lack proper closure (even faithful readers might feel stunned by the brevity of the third act). No wistful train platform goodbyes, no sensational battles, and no heartening "see ya next year" sentiments. "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" closes with something of a doomsday cliffhanger. While other films would be strung up and set on fire for such an offense, this franchise has earned the right to step back and build a healthy pocket of steam, galloping toward a showdown with Voldemort that's now fully primed to explode.