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Let's just get this out of the way: there will never be a great film based on a Harry Potter book. The series by J.K. Rowling is too dense with characters, packed with references, suffused with a bookishness that no amount of CGI can replicate. Once we realize this, and accept that the increasingly enjoyable series of Harry Potter movies will never reach the rousing heights of the source material, going into the latest wizarding adventure gets a lot more pleasant.
And Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, despite a few narrative threads and character arcs left dangling in the transfer, is by far one of the best of the series, and absolutely the funniest and most human. The last film that will be set largely at Hogwarts, Half-Blood Prince leaves room for its characters and the world they inhabit to breathe, returning to things like Quidditch and Christmas parties and the "frivolous" things that make Rowling's writing such a joy. Aided by some stellar supporting players, including the tremendous Jim Broadbent as bombastic new professor Horace Slughorn, the film earns big laughs where earlier films felt more morose than magical. It's not a light film by any means, but Half-Blood Prince feels less hellbent on plot development, and therefore a lot more fun.
Returning to Hogwarts for his sixth year, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, blank and serviceable) is convinced, as ever, that nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton, aging marvelously) is up to no good. But this time he's right-- Malfoy has been given a mysterious directive from Voldemort himself, and Professor Snape (Alan Rickman, delicious) has vowed to help him. As Malfoy completes a mysterious task in a hidden corner of the castle, Harry and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) delve into memories of Voldemort's past, hoping to discover the key to destroying him for good.
On the other hand, there are equally important things to consider, like Hermione's (Emma Watson) growing feelings for the dopey Ron (Rupert Grint, turning into a stellar comedian), who has gotten caught up in a lovey-dovey relationship with Lavender Brown (a hilarious Jessie Cave). Harry, for his part, can't stop staring at Ron's little sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright). Evanna Lynch is also back as the wondrous space cadet Luna Lovegood, and Freddie Stroma is funny as the egomaniacal Cormac McLaggen, a challenger for Ron's spot on the Quidditch team and for Hermione's affections.
Employing a dark and stormy color palette that's effective if not particularly interesting, director David Yates makes his best choices in transitioning from scene to scene. In one corner of the castle, Ron kisses Lavender; in another, Malfoy stalks up a set of stairs on his uncertain mission. Taking place almost entirely within Hogwarts, the film possesses a nice claustrophobia, as you imagine an actual boarding school full of wizards might feel. It's a good chance to say goodbye to the old place
The book boasted very little action, and a new scene is stupidly added midway through the movie as a replacement for a climactic final battle that is cut entirely. But the book's best and most terrifying scene, in which Harry and Dumbledore explore a cave that holds one of Voldemort's treasures, is executed perfectly. Dumbledore has previously always been an aloof and benevolent figure, beloved but distant, but when he and Harry embark on their multiple adventures, he becomes much more like a partner. It's yet another step on Harry's road toward adulthood, and for all the ways his acting falters elsewhere, Radcliffe handles the transition deftly.
Packed as it is with Quidditch and Christmas parties and the occasional dark magic, Half-Blood Prince does manage to drag in parts, mostly the serious ones in which plot development apparently requires long pauses to become clear. But the comic scenes are so light and enjoyable in contrast that the pace keeps up despite itself. For the most part all the cuts made from the book are good ones, trimming the fat and such, but the presence of characters like Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) at the end no longer makes any sense with the final battle missing. For all the brilliance Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves show in condensing the story, the film, like all the others, arrives at an ending that feels less earned than inevitable.
As a Potter fan it's easy to nitpick-- Snape's final scene is a letdown, Ginny is turned into a total snore-- but that's not the point of the films. It's a chance to marvel at the visuals of Hogwarts, seeing Professor Slughorn turn into an armchair and Hermione attack Ron with a flock of birds. The fact that there's a heart behind all the digital wizardry is a testament to how far the series has come, and how well Yates knows the world that, in the end, he will have helped create as much as Rowling. We'd love Harry's newest adventure no matter what, but thankfully, this one earns our devotion.