Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Rating: ****
Release Date: 7/15/09
Director: David Yates
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Tom Felton, Jim Broadbent, Alan Rickman, Warwick Davis, Robbie Coltrane, Bonnie Wright, Evanna Lynch, Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter

Fabulous! The Harry Potter franchise gets a much needed kick in the pants with what is my favorite film since the original. The film wastes no time getting down to business and is mercifully free from the awkward "woe is Harry" scenes that have increasingly plagued the series. Harry's annoying Muggle family is also absent, which I found delightfully refreshing. Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) and Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) are up to no good and seemingly in the service of the dark lord Voldemort. Professor Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) continues to search for ways to destroy Voldemort and a new teacher, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), may hold the key. Meanwhile, the students at Hogwarts are all in the throes of adolescent sexual awakening, which Dumbledore humorously refers to as "the keen sting of love." Feelings are hurt and friendships are strained, but our lovestruck heroes manage to survive and become stronger as a result. The angst, fear, sadness, and exhilaration are very real and thankfully not overdone. In the end, Harry learns an important secret regarding Voldemort which sends him and Dumbledore on a desperate mission to retrieve a special artifact - with dire results. Things are looking very dark and grim for the Hogwarts clan, as we anxiously await the final installment of the saga.

"The Half-Blood Prince" is a much more adult film than the previous entries, not so much in content as in execution. The oppressive atmosphere is thick with tension, gloom, and doom, and it's really nice to see the films growing up along with the characters. There are no cute or funny set pieces and no comedic characters, and everyone stays on track with somber seriousness. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint deliver excellent performances, supported by the strong and steady performances of Michael Gambon and Alan Rickman. The big surprise this time is Tom Felton, as Draco's character is given more depth and treated with tragic sympathy instead of as a sneering comedic foil. The visual effects are once again outstanding, and once again subtly ambient rather than in-your-face. It's a truly gorgeous film to watch and everything looks alive, magical, and menacing. The romance angle is handled very gently, and scenes of awkward teen romance are sweetly touching as opposed to gag-inducing. The pacing is steady and the movie never has a dull or dragged out moment. The writing is clear and concise and I rarely felt lost or confused by what was happening (which may be a first for me!). Overall, I found the film to be extremely well crafted, thoughtful, and straight to the point, which satisfied me on every level.