(BEWARE!!! POTENTIAL SPOILERS AWAIT YOU IN THE DEPTHS OF THIS UNNECESSARILY LONG REVIEW!)
More so than any other film in the Harry Potter series, Half Blood Prince had me really worried. For starters, this is the first film of the series in which the majority of the audience members, including myself, will already know the outcome of the characters and story as a result of reading the books. Would this take away from the suspense of the films? Not only that, but, despite the fact that director David Yates had a strong big-screen directorial debute with the Order of the Phoenix, it still had a slightly amateur feel to it, as if he wasn't quite comfortable with filling the role of big-budget movie director (His previous credits involve the mini-series State of Play and other British TV films). Despite this, there's no doubt that his attention to acting and character work provided some of the best performances the series has seen from our young trio.
Shortly into filming of Half-Blood Prince, Warner Bros. announced that Yates had not only signed on to direct the 6th movie, but he would be directing the final movie as well, splitting it into two parts. If the Half-Blood Prince disappointed, then, it would be pretty difficult to get ANYONE excited for the final two films. Combine these factors with the much publicized and scrutinized delay, moving the film from its originally intended November release to this 2009 summer season (Warner Bros. claimed they wanted a big release for 2009 as the Dark Knight had dominated 2008 and they wouldn't need the money). Still, after reading a particular review on Ain't It Cool News complaining about the state of the film at the time, I couldn't shake the feeling that the delay may be more about the quality of the film than anything. When it came down to it, I knew I would have to wait it out and discover the movie for myself, and I'm beyond ecstatic to announce that all these fears have been completely pushed aside by the brilliance that is this movie.
It's remarkable for a film series to keep its freshness and entertainment value over the course of 3-4 films without feeling stale. With the exception of the James Bond film series, there aren't many franchises out there that have earned such a merit (even the Bond films started to show signs of wear and tear with Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, slightly recovering with On Her Majesty's Secret Service). Even trilogies such as Back to the Future, The Matrix, and even the Godfather had floundered in their final entries, unable to sustain any form of interesting story (With Back to the Future and the Matrix, these faults were already evident in their middle chapters). As a result of having phenomenal source material, this is not the case with this particular movie series. Not only do the Harry Potter films seem to be getting better and more mature with each entry, but, in the same way that the books grew more complex and emotionally satisfying as they went on, the films have followed suit....and this one tops them all in terms of sheer character development and emotional complexity. Needless to say, all my fears were washed away from the opening scene...David Yates has up'd his game and the result is the best Harry Potter film since Alfonso Cuaron took the reins for the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Everything about this movie is a vast improvement over the Order of the Phoenix. Yates has clearly developed into a confident filmmaker. His angles are less awkward, and his shots are much more daring. It only helps when you manage to get such a competent crew on your side, including the likes of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement). Despite being a newcomer to the Potter series, there's no doubt that the man is an expert of his craft. Bringing his visual style to the film was an inspired choice, and, as a result the film is arguably the best looking of the bunch (The Sectumsempra scene stands out in particular as a fine example). Steve Kloves also makes a welcome return as the screenwriter for this film (He wrote the first four, then took a break for number 5). He clearly gets the world, the characters, and even the actors playing them, which only contributes to the film. The problem that Kloves and Yates had to face with the story was that the book is very expositional. It is, essentially, a preparation for the final installments with no big action-packed set pieces. They address this head on by focusing more on character development, mostly the romantic aspects of our three heroes, as opposed to the flashbacks that reveal Voldemort's past, narrowing it down to the bare essentials. Potter purists may be up in arms about the change, but, for the sake of pacing, it works to not have the majority of your film taking place in flashbacks. Plus, the two flashbacks included are the two most important ones, so no need to worry, kiddos.
The three principal cast members (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) are all in top form here. Yates' direction is clearly helping them come into their own, as they all give top-notch performances. They also get the opportunity to stretch their comedic talents as well...Dan and Rupert especially seem to have a genuine knack for it, pulling some of the film's biggest laughs. The supporting cast is great, as always. This time, Jim Broadbent joins the club as the new Potions teacher, Professor Horace Slughorn, and he captures the character of the book perfectly. This character could have easily fallen into the trap of the bumbling, comic-relief status, but Yates and Broadbent give Slughorn's character the respect it deserves, managing to portray the character's goofiness with a hint of genuine sadness. There's an emotional weight on Slughorn's shoulders and Broadbent manages to carry it with outstanding vigor.
The usual returning supporting cast is great as always, but, there are just a few who have earned the right to receive specific shoutouts. First and foremost is Michael Gambon, reprising his role as Professor Dumbledore. When he first joined the cast for the 3rd movie (Replacing the late great Richard Harris), it was an awkward change. His Dumbledore was dramatically different from Harris' interpretation. At first I didn't like it much at all, but looking back on it, I realize how perfectly he captured the energy of the character, something Harris never seemed to acknowledge. His performance in the 4th movie, save his final scene with Harry, left much to be desired. He came off as a foolish, short-tempered old man without the slightest hint of wisdom. Finally, with the fifth film, Gambon seemed to have gotten into the swing of things. In this film, Dumbledore is pushed to the forefront as he and Harry explore the mysteries of Voldemort's past. Gambon pulls it off beautifully, and his final scenes with Harry in the cave are heartbreaking.
Another performance worth briefly noting is that of Alan Rickman's Professor Snape, whose usual cold, dark stare has begun to show signs of depth and sadness in this film. Rickman, now knowing his character's fate in the final book, has clearly embraced the tragic figure of this story, and I can't wait to see his final hurrah in the last part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Finally, Tom Felton's Draco Malfoy has been promoted from the status of annoying bully to a conflicted and troubled teen who has been tasked with something that is clearly beyond his ability. Felton pulls it off remarkably well, considering his cartoonish portrayals of Malfoy in the past films, and my hat's off to him. Well done, good sir! You'll be a Jedi yet! Oh!! And before I forget, Jessie Cave gives a fun performance as Ron Weasley's new love interest Lavender Brown. She's appropriately creepy and obnoxiously clingy...just the way the character should be! The only supporting character who doesn't seem up to the challenge is Bonnie Wright's Ginny Weasley, who has graduated to Harry's love interest. She seems remarkably bored the whole time and, despite showing little hints of brilliance here and there, she doesn't do nearly as well as her fellow cast members. Everyone else is in top form here...well done, old chaps!
Despite the focus on character development and the romantic elements of the novel, there are some welcome action sequences, such as the fantastic Quidditch scene in which Ron finally gets to strut his stuff. The big finale in the cave is stunning as well. However, there is no denying that this film, in keeping with the book it's based on, is a stepping stone....a transitional piece in which our love for the characters grow and the threats become remarkably real as characters we've come to know and love begin dying all around our heroes...one major one in particular. Dumbledore's death scene is treated with the respect it deserves, and, despite the fact that the funeral did not make an appearance here (rumor has it, it will be starting the final film), it is still an incredibly emotional affair. Other changes from the book are welcome, including an intense scene involving the Death Eaters attacking the Weasley household, which simultaneously reminds us that no one is safe in the wizarding world anymore, as well as injecting a much needed boost of action into the middle of the film.
We are nearing the end of the series here, and there is a distinct feeling of dread that runs throughout the film's running time, despite the fact that it is funnier and more romantic than any of the previous entries. The PG rating is a joke. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is darker and much more mature than the previous entries. This is not kid's stuff anymore. However, it does prove one thing: the Harry Potter series is in more than capable hands and will finish strongly when Deathly Hallows is finally released. When the big picture is finally complete, the Potter films will stand as one of the finest examples of moviemaking: A blockbuster series that doesn't sacrifice quality for quantity. This is particularly hard to come by these days, and, in the wake of the travesty that was Transformers 2, a big-budget movie that focuses solely on character development is a breath of the freshest air this side of the Mississippi.
In conclusion, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is one of the best movies of the year, and it continues the consistent trend of quality that we've come to associate these movies with....November, 2010 can't come soon enough!!!!!! Aaaaaand, scene!