It's already made four hundred million worldwide."
"Yeah, but can it beat Transformers (2)?"
Please pardon the vulgarity, but these are the first words I heard spoken -- sadly, by teenagers -- upon emerging from a Sunday morning civilian screening of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Which was a bit shocking, really -- because it's an astonishing movie, one of the very best of the year, and thus abruptly breaking it down to numbers (even if they are huge) seems to me to be missing its whole enchanting point.
Just to clarify, this review counts as a very enthusiastic rave. I'll cover the picky bits here on top, and then I'll gush.
Origins: By now most fans know and can identify the material author J.K. Rowling pilfered to create her terrific little book series (very explicitly Vertigo Comics' earlier, eerily similar The Books of Magic, and Jill Murphy's excellent The Worst Witch; implicitly Roald Dahl and J.R.R. Tolkien; etc. x 1,000). Plus, of course, thematically, with its good wizards and bad wizards, its "Dark Lord" and Jedi Academy -- oops, I mean Professor Xavier's Academy -- oops, I mean Hogwarts School (one of several stupid names which peculiarly pass sans comment; another is "Dumbledore") -- the Harry Potter universe is very much a modern, earthbound Star Wars, right down to its plainly-stated "Chosen One" mythos (magical orphan savior), wands replacing lightsabers, and the Lucas-owned effects company ILM mightily dishing it all up onscreen, etc. Still, if you like it, you like it -- and I happen to like it a lot. So it's cool. I held off in a cynical hover for the first couple of books, but then gave in, love 'em, and have delighted in all the movies (admittedly, 4 and 5 are clunky), and have even invested in some merch (though I still want a Snape cape). Nonetheless, I note: if you boil it down, there's nothing new here whatsoever -- giant spiders in the forest; oh Jo, you're so inventive! -- but there's so much wonderful style, wit and even genuine pathos holding this stuff together that only an idiot could deny the many charms of this franchise.
Now, coming to the long-awaited (and postponed) big-screen adaptation of Half-Blood Prince -- which made me wait several months so I made it wait several days -- I find myself thrilled anew with the film series, as this one matches the first three for wit and wonder, and may even surpass them in terms of style (coming as a surprise, as relative newbie director David Yates did not particularly impress me with his choppy, awkward, insubstantial previous installment, Order of the Phoenix). Although returning screenwriter-adapter Steve Kloves takes some significant liberties with the plot (mostly condensing sequences, plus gently focusing dialogue), my few complaints here are primarily lodged against Rowling -- whose Obi-Wan-esque tragic-martyr climax I didn't buy in the book any more than I do in the movie (just bring along an undesired house-elf to drink the evil sludge; problem solved). While visually brilliant both on the page and onscreen, the pivotal scene feels to me dramatically forced (plus Kloves' briefly thudding dialogue, alas, does nothing to enhance its plausibility), and...goodness, that's almost it for complaints: Only one major one (the story cries out for something better), but no deal-breaker. All right -- and I also didn't like the cheesy tone of the spectral Death Eaters leading the should-be-much-smarter-than-this Harry and Ginny out into the spooky cornfield -- as always, Helena Bonham Carter is better seen than heard (unless we're talking Planet of the Apes). Plus it has bothered me from the beginning that this series' TBE's (Token Black Extras) are always present specifically to be seen (grinning; cheering) and not heard (the brief exception here being gorgeous newcomer Elarica Gallagher, during Harry's brief "Muggle" flirtation in the London Underground). But...yeah...everything else about this movie I adore.
Brace yourselves for the full-on rave:
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is glorious, haunting, lyrical, and magical -- and it makes very good on its promise to transport viewers into the wizardly world they so ardently crave. Along with Coraline and Watchmen, this sixth Harry Potter adventure is the smartest and most richly rewarding fantasy film you're likely to see this year, and it also delivers as Art, as Cinema. Even if you're completely new to these characters and scenarios, this is great filmmaking here!
By this stage, you're either a fan or you're not, so here's the skinny on the plot: Mere weeks after the brief, brutal wizard battle that left his friend, godfather and mentor Sirius Black dead, the eponymous Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, same old) joins fellow students Hermione (Emma Watson, stretching a bit) and Ron (Rupert Grint, always the most fun) in returning to (ugh!) Hogwarts, where (ugh!) Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, apart from an extraordinarily bad scarf in a flashback, nearly indistinguishable from Ian McKellen's Gandalf) entrusts Harry with a difficult mission: To extract from returning professor Horace Slughorn (the charming Jim Broadbent, by now a legend of the genre) any pertinent memory of Tom Riddle -- a former pupil whose story was partly revealed in the sensational Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (still my fave). Twisty subplots (mostly to do with the sweetness and agony of teen romance) and amusing character cameos abound. But in sum, anyone even breezily familiar with Anakin Skywalker knows that Riddle (here played at age 11 by elder incarnation Ralph Fiennes' nephew) turned to "the Dark Side" -- and thus here the crux (the...Horcrux?) involves finding out exactly how -- and how to stop him.
Stylistically, really, I cannot gush enough to convey how utterly splendid this movie looks. I love its style so much I may just buy it and leave it on endless loop with the sound down. Great praise to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel -- who with this, Across the Universe and Amélie may have just become more than my fave D.P.; he may well be my hero. Simple two-shots are rendered with surprising elegance, and especially the establishing shots (craning down between Tudor shops; swooping along, then into, the Hogwarts Express; wafting outside the castle) emerge as full-on cinematic art. Combine this with a somewhat desaturated palette (quadruple Tim Burton's faux-"Universal horror" look from his Sweeney Todd adaptation) and you get no mere children's fantasy movie but a montage of the most creatively lensed shots I've seen all year (very capably edited by Mark Day). In a word: Sumptuous!
Meanwhile, let us not (as many do) neglect the soundtrack, featuring what I mistook as John Williams' best score since the delicious, mediaeval-tinged Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban -- except that, a couple of familiar themes notwithstanding, this richly nuanced and truly grand score is provided by Order of the Phoenix' returning composer, Nicholas Hooper. In addition to the appropriately heavy mood music, there's scatty jazz here, some classical guitar, some fantasy music I don't know how to define -- but I love it; I'm going to buy the CD immediately.
And then, most importantly, all of this exceptional craftspersonship would be for naught if the performers didn't entice us to care about these characters. Which they do. As with the massive crew, the cast are simply too numerous to list, but there's not a clinker among them. Alan Rickman's sinister purr as Severus Snape has delighted us from the beginning, and he does not disappoint. Boys are likely to go gaga for either Evanna Lynch (as the whimsical Luna Lovegood) or Bonnie Wright (wonderfully subtle as Harry's crush, Ginny Weasley). And speaking of Weasleys, once again Rupert Grint brings it as Ron -- his hilarious obsession after gulping a love potion is alone worth the cost of admission.
Indeed, as in all the Harry Potter movies, grace notes abound: A baby dragon here, a massive dead spider there (the latter representing one of the movie's standout scenes, featuring Robbie Coltrane as the salty half-giant Hagrid). I love that wizards are mystified by the concept of dentistry (they are English, after all). On that topic, Hermione's romantic association with the scent of spearmint toothpaste proves poignant (after her boring "kick-ass girl" shtick a couple of movies back, it's also nice to see her pining and miserable for a change). Mr. Weasley's shed filled with mysterious Muggle appliances is delightfully arrayed. Slughorn surreptitiously pruning Professor Sprout's greenhouse specimens makes for a nice little setpiece (plus it affords series continuity). There even seems to be some underlying gender-justice when Nymphadora (!) Tonks (Natalia Tena) declares of her lunar-afflicted werewolf beau Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), "The first night of the cycle is always the worst." (Heh.) Toss in a fun, frightful scene we may generously call "The Night of the Aqua-Gollums," and this fine, fine movie, which aims to satisfy, truly does just that. I'm applauding. You couldn't pay me to sit through Transformers 2, but I'm already jonesing to pay for the Half-Blood Prince in 3D IMAX.