Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has a lot to live up to. There’s been a disappointing dip in form from the five-strong film series last time (sorry Order of the Phoenix sympathisers, but that’s a fact) and an extra eight-month wait for after the bigwigs realised they’d make more money releasing it among the writers strike-affected sparse Summer ‘09. Good thing returning director David Yates and the rest of the usual suspects have knocked this one out of the Quidditch Park then.
By far the funniest HP film so far, Half-Blood Prince injects a most welcome spell of fun and humour to help balance out the ever-darkening tone of the overarching story. For those few that haven’t read Rowling’s novels, Harry’s ever more difficult sixth year begins with Voldemort’s Death Eaters wreaking havoc in both the magic and muggle worlds as individuals disappear and man-made structures are destroyed.
Back at Hogwarts, Snape has finally got the Defence Against the Dark Arts job he’s coveted for so long, whilst his Potions Master position has been taken up by new Professor Horace Slughorn (new cast member Jim Broadbent). A former Hogwarts teacher enticed back by the opportunity to tutor Harry, Slughorn is a man with ties to Tom Riddle’s time at the school and a possible window to his past.
Meanwhile our favourite characters’ relationships deepen, alter and grow whilst other bonds are broken forever. One thing’s for certain, by the end of the film nothing will be the same for every single member of our much-beloved ensemble.
And here’s where Half-Blood gets it so right: this is an ensemble escapade making the most of the magic cast, not a streamlined Harry-obsessed adventure. Ron has more to do than just gurn, Hermione does more than just dole out words of wisdom, and Dumbledore takes over the central hero role from Harry in much the same way Doc Brown did from Marty in Back to the Future III. Even Draco gets some meaty dramatics here rather than the token scenes of bad-boy bullying normally afforded him.
Half-Blood also ties into the overall story arc as no other Potter has done before, taking the new Bond template and aiming to work more as one flowing narrative rather than another stand-alone adventure. This sense completes the film as we leave not on a freeze-frame or a cheesy wrap-up coda this time but on a teaser of what is in store in Deathly Hallows (parts I and II). Never have Dumbledore’s words seemed more appropriate (“Dark and difficult times lie ahead, Harry”).
The big finish and the inevitable demise of a MAJOR character is also much better handled here than the loss of Sirius previously. We pause and actually allow it to sink in, rather than have to move onto the next set-piece before the momentum is lost.
This is by some distance the best Potterventure thus far, even eclipsing Alfonso Cuarón’s spectacular third instalment. In fact so good is Half-Blood that you could go so far as to say that come the film’s conclusion the whole shebang has a LOTR quality to it. Some praise indeed. So bring on the Deathly Hallows; perhaps that extra wait was a blessing in disguise.