by Scott Mendelson
Without question, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the best out-and-out sixth chapter of any franchise since Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Granted, the competition isn't very stiff (Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, Police Academy 6: City Under Siege, etc), but it's still remarkable how well this long-running series has held up. So when I say that this sixth film is perhaps my least favorite film of the franchise, it is only tepid criticism at best. When a film this good can be considered the weakest of six, that says something about the consistency of quality running through the Harry Potter series.
A token amount of plot - Harry Potter is still recovering from the shocking death of Sirius Black during a battle royale at the Ministry of Magic. But while the press and the wizarding world at large wonder whether he is 'the chosen one', Harry quickly finds himself whisked away by Dumbledore to help recruit Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), a retired potions professor who may have important memories involving the young Tom Riddle (ie - Voldermort). Meanwhile, Draco Malfoy has been recruited by the Dark Lord himself, but the task required is so heinous that Draco's mother turns to Severus Snape (the priceless Alan Rickman) for help and guidance. As the two respective chosen ones go about their opposing tasks, the promise of romance sends hearts at Hogwarts aflutter and hormones raging.
Knowing that the next two films will be plot and action-driven, director David Yates slows things down quite a bit, concentrating less on mysteries and dark plots and more on character interaction. As a result, the young supporting cast who have been somewhat sidelined since Prisoner of Azkaban are again given a chance to shine. While the romantic turmoil provides solid laughs, it is still somewhat disquieting to see the our beloved hard ass Hermoine weeping in a stairwell over a boy. Yes, she has finally realized that she loves her past pal Ron, although Ron has been swept away by the pushy and forthright Lavender Brown. Meanwhile, Harry pines for Ginny Weasley, Ron's all-grown up baby sister who has secretly crushed on 'the boy who lived' since he saved her butt in Chamber of Secrets. Unfortunately, Evanna Lynch has turned the otherwise peripheral Luna Lovegood into such a charming, daffy, kind, wise, and lovely human being that it only makes Harry look that much dumber to be chasing the comparatively less interesting Ginny Weasley instead (at least Bonnie Wright does what she can to give Ginny a token more personality than Order of the Phoenix's dreadfully dull Cho Chang).
So while I have plenty of Hogwarts eye candy to keep my attention during the romantic melodrama, my wife got her fill during the more perilous subplot. IE - Alan Rickman's Snape gets more screen time than usual and Tom Felton's Draco Malfoy looks appropriately dapper in his new outfit of evil (sharp black suit with black shirt and black tie). The second major story arc concerns the maturation of Draco Malfoy. This is the first time that Tom Felton has gotten anything to do other than hiss and be grouchy, but wow does he knock it out of the park. Felton all but steals the film with very little dialogue, as his would-be villain painfully discovers that there is a big difference between merely being evil and actually committing acts of evil. While Harry's instincts about Draco are correct, his attempts to interfere continually make a bad situation worse. His encounter with Harry Potter in a Hogwarts lavatory is a stunner, as Harry actually commits a rather shocking act of violence against a justifiably pissed-off Draco (PG-rating be damned, this scene is bloodier than anything in the last two films).
So the romantic subplot works pretty well, and the 'last temptation of Draco' stuff is surprisingly potent, so why doesn't the film work better, or at least as well as the original book? Well, for one thing, it becomes more obvious than usual in this chapter that the rules of magic are rather arbitrary in accordance with plot demands. For example, Dumbledore and Harry can basically teleport at will, but they need a boat to cross a scary moat. And while Dumbledore can wave his wand and restore a tattered and broken house anew, no one thinks to request said magic when a horrifying act of property destruction occurs at the halfway point. Furthermore, this is the first film since Prisoner of Azkabin where you really have to have read the book to truly understand character motivations. The movie barely touches Voldermort's back story, which was the spine of the sixth novel. And, furthermore, the fascinating tidbits about the past of the actual Half-Blood Prince are completely dropped, which renders certain behavior less ambiguous than it was in the book, costing the story much of its post-film discussion topics. Book readers will remember heartily debating the actions and choices of certain characters, but the movie leaves almost no room for debate.
Finally, I'm fully aware than I'm being somewhat unfair, judging a film for not measuring up to the book, but the finale is not nearly as dramatically satisfying. Just as the death of Sirius Black was surprisingly muted in Order of the Phoenix, so too is the action climax of Half-Blood Prince. First of all, there really is no action climax. The 'death eaters attack Hogwarts' moments have been completely removed (probably to avoid repetition with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), leaving no real reason for said villains to show up in the first place. And the film's handling of a certain plot twist (one very near and dear to my heart) isn't nearly as dramatic as it reads on the printed page. And, this may just be my faulty memory, but I didn't find the circumstances of the said event to be nearly as telegraphed as it felt onscreen. The incident made my jaw drop in surprised glee when I read it, but it seemed all but obvious onscreen for even those who hadn't sampled the books.
The bitter after taste of squandering what should have been a wonderful cinematic moment hurts what up until then had been a fine and involving adventure. The cast is impeccable as always, and there is again the emphasis on character and moral challenges that has made this franchise a diamond in the rough over the years. By any normal standard, this is a wonderfully involving and entertaining tent pole popcorn entertainment. But this is still the weakest Harry Potter film of the series (based on my second-favorite Harry Potter book no less), and it leaves me worried for just what narrative and cinematic choices that David Yates will make for the last two films of the series (book seven is being split in two). While he never fails to elicit fine performances and rich character work, he has so far come up short on the climactic spectacle department. There are several showstopping moments in the final book, including the death on a major villain that, as written, should cause thunderous audience applause. I hope he can pull this stuff off too when he absolutely has to. But the series has been nothing less than pretty good going on six films now, so now I just hope Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince remains the worst of the lot.
For ongoing updates of Harry Potter's opening five days at the box office, including its record midnight opening, a box office history of sixth chapters, and a review of last year's box office juggernaut, The Dark Knight, go to Mendelson's Memos.
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