First, a confession: I'm a shameless Harry Potter dork. I'm one of those people who lined up at midnight to shell out my grown-up dollars for each new installment of J.K. Rowling's fantastical young adult series. I never even had the decency to grab a convenient kid and make him pretend to be my nephew when I saw a familiar face herding their offspring though the aisles.
Depending on your perspective, that either makes me predisposed to love Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, or predisposed to be a particularly harsh judge of the sixth film in what will eventually be an eight-film series. It must be a little of both; though Half-Blood Prince occasionally disappoints as an adaptation, it's a rousing success as a movie. The pacing lags a bit and the book's spectacular ending is treated almost perfunctorily, but its truly marvelous production design, inspired cinematography, and flawless performances from a top-drawer cast make it easy to forgive these transgressions.
At this point in the game, the filmmakers have two options: They can risk stumbling under the increasingly hefty burden of exposition that accompanies each new installment, or they can simply ignore it and count on the audience to do their homework and keep up. Wisely, director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves have opted for the latter. Newcomers will likely be lost, but by now it's safe to assume there won't be many of those in the audience. If you haven't yet been inclined to read the books or watch the first five movies, you probably won't be afflicted with a sudden burning desire to see Half-Blood Prince.
By now the story has traded the wide-eyed wonder of its first installments for the grimmer colors of the fairy-tale spectrum. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his constant companions Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are returning to Hogwarts for their sixth year of study, but it's no longer the magical sanctuary they first set foot in as 11-year-olds. The thoroughly despicable Voldemort is officially back in action, and his Death-Eaters are waging a terrorist war on the magical and Muggle communities alike. Harry, aka the Chosen One, wrestles with the knowledge that he is the only one who can defeat the Dark Lord—quite a weighty task for a kid who has only recently discovered girls.
Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) has his own plans for Harry. Dumbledore has persuaded fellow wizard Horace Slughorn (a wonderful Jim Broadbent) to return to his old teaching position at Hogwarts, but the headmaster has an urgent agenda: Slughorn possesses a crucial memory about Voldemort, and it's up to Harry to convince Slughorn to share it. Along the way, the young hero must also contend with his old nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), who appears to be up to some very dark deeds.
The filmmakers have made the curious decision to focus more on the general horrors of adolescence than the specific horrors of Voldemort's return to power. Half-Blood Prince spotlights everything that sucks about being a teenager: insecurity, jealousy, unrequited longing, rampant hormonal imbalances, and having no idea what to do about any of it. As the central trio stumble through their awkward transitions to adulthood, we're constantly reminded that, in spite of their bravery and resourcefulness, they really are just kids. Their age ultimately makes them ill-equipped for the terrible tasks that await them, and their successes are all the more impressive for it. Though there are lengthy passages that play out like a John Hughes movie, it sets the stage beautifully for the last two films in the series. (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is being filmed in two parts, to be released in November 2010 and July 2011.)
As the film focuses on the oft-shifting romantic interests of the young heroes, it sometimes glosses over the meatier aspects of its source material. The climactic battle, which defines the book for many readers, is underplayed to the point of brusqueness—odd, considering the outcome and its ramifications for the finale of the series. Viewers hoping for more action, though, should be placated by how good it is when it does show up. The infrequent but effective physical conflicts are thrilling and frightening. A scene in a wheat field is scarier than most of the slasher flicks it borrows from, and the dizzying broom-cam rides through London and over the Quidditch field are startlingly effective. Though most moviegoers will already know who survives and who doesn't, Yates imbues the action with impressive suspense and immediacy.
Though some viewers will think Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince spends too much of its 153-minute running time wandering through teen melodrama territory, it more than makes up for its shortcomings. The real magic of the series has nothing to do with charms or potions. The story's wild appeal is anchored in its very likeable group of characters who will do absolutely anything to help and defend one another, and Half-Blood Prince perfectly realizes that dynamic. As the credits roll on the film's stirring, emotional conclusion, it's clear that the franchise is in very good hands as it reaches its conclusion.