HARRY POTTER & THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE
What started out as a cute children's series has turned into an extremely dark story about evil overwhelming all. Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince takes the strongest turn of all the Potter films, putting its focus squarely on the dangers that are engulfing our hero, whom we often forget is still a minor.
Starting right after the events of Order of the Phoenix (which would make it the first Potter film to not have an introductory bit pre-Hogwarts--and thus, NO DURSLEYS!! HURRAY!! HURRAY!), Harry (Daniel Ratcliffe) is besieged by the Wizarding World press, who now finally admit that Lord Voldemort and his minions have come roaring back to life. This danger even enters the Muggle World, with a spectacular attack on London's Millennium Bridge. Professor Dumbledore (Sir Michael Gambon) persuades an old friend and former Hogwarts professor, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) to come back and teach Potions. Both have their own agendas: Slughorn wants to teach Harry and thus add to his collection of brilliant students, Dumbledore wants Harry to get close to Slughorn to get vital information about what Slughorn taught the young Tom Riddle aka Lord Voldemort.
Meanwhile, the Malfoys are plotting the triumphant return of Voldemort. Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) appears to be initiated into the Death Eaters, and while he struggles between his desire to please and whatever qualms he may have about it, he is egged on by both his mother Narsissa (Helen McCrory) and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). Add to this mix is Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) who is also unmasked as being in league with the Malfoys and plotting Voldemort's return. Mixed into this one story are stories of the growing attraction entre Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), along with Harry and Ron's sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) and another plot involving a book of potions Harry discovers. This book, once owned by someone called The Half-Blood Prince, gives Harry the right ways to create all forms of powerful potions.
I want to take a moment to wonder if J.K. Rowling isn't repeating herself a bit. This idea of 'book that belongs to a mysterious being which gives Harry information that really just serves to tempt him' is just like that from Chamber of Secrets. Unlike that film, however, Steve Kloves' script (returning from an absence in Order of the Phoenix) doesn't take a lot of time dwelling on the actual mystery of WHO the Half-Blood Prince is (and when it's revealed, it's quite a surprise, one of the few times I've been genuinely surprised by a plot twist). While it is important, the focus stays (most of the time) on the struggle Harry has to merely stay alive against a group that is becoming more powerful, more dangerous, and more deadly.
Overall, Half-Blood Prince has pushed the Potter world into a new dark age, which in this case is good. Guest star Broadbent strikes the right balance between being a bumbling professor of Potions and a frightened man, pained by his unwitting aid of a dangerous student. Rickman takes a greater role in Half-Blood Prince where he returns to being the more menacing being that he has been in the previous films (sometimes where he wasn't even a major part of it). Just his mere presence is commanding enough for the screen, and his line delivery is short, clipped, but also a mix of haughtiness and menace. Gambon moves to the forefront as well, guiding Harry until he can no longer help him. He isn't sentimental about what he has to do, but you still makes you feel great pain when he must endure a new plot device: the horcrux (an object which I figure will play a prominent part in the upcoming Deathly Hallows Part I & II).
Out of all the junior actors, it is Tom Felton who now has almost an equal part to play in the story as Daniel Ratcliffe. Director David Yates does a very interesting thing with Felton. Draco doesn't go into long speeches about how he can revenge himself against hit hated rival, the famous Harry Potter. Instead, Felton makes Draco's emotions known merely with his face and body movements. There is this mixture of fear and rage within him, as if there is a conflict between what is expected of Draco, son of Lucius Malfoy, and what Draco believes to be right and/or wrong. This doesn't diminish his hatred for Potter: Half-Blood Prince may be the first Potter film where Draco gets one-up on Harry (albeit briefly). I don't know if it was Rowling's intent, but there seems to be a sort of yin and yang between Harry and Draco: two kids who are bound to be rivals as The Chosen Ones for Light and Dark. Quite epic in its scope.
Of course, herein may lie the central problem with Half-Blood Prince: its length. Not necessary the length of the film itself (thought still clocking in at 2 1/2 hours), but the length of the whole story is so vast that a film would not be able to include everything. There is the major subplot of the romances going on within just Gryffindor House (one wonders if there is any hanky-panky at Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, let alone Slytherin). You have Ron (who has achieved his lifelong dream of being a Quidditch champion) now gaining a girlfriend, one Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), though I'd argue she was more of an obsessed fan (perhaps a parody of the Potter-Heads who take all this a bit TOO seriously?), but now Hermione comes to admit what we (or at least I) suspected, and then Harry feels the same for Ginny while Ron's kid sister is still gallivanting with Dean Thomas (Alfie Enoch) and a new character, Quidditch champion Cormac McLaggen (Freddie Stroma) has the hots for Hermione, which both Harry and Ron don't like. Ain't romance in kids quite perplexing?
Yes, it's important to have some of this in the story, but all the business about the Love Potions was to my mind a bit silly, as was having TWO Quidditch matches. I know the fans love them, but I simply could never get into them and always felt that, like the Dursleys, the drag the plot down. I'm told that the hat Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch, still giving one of the best but alas brief performances) wore wasn't just made to look like she'd escaped the stage show of The Lion King but actually have a larger role. With the film adaptation, that gets lost--and if you either haven't read or don't care to read the books (for example, me), that person will get a bit lost too. You also have reduced Professor McConagall (Dame Maggie Smith) and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) to mere cameos. It's a sign of how large the story is (and how small the film is by extension) that I didn't even realize Wormtail (Timothy Spall) from Prisoner of Azkaban was even IN Half-Blood Prince. I saw Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), also from Prisoner of Azkaban, in the film, but what was he in--one, two scenes? I was also confused when we see the origins of Tom Riddle: was he an orphan in the Muggle or Wizarding World? Why did he HAVE to be an orphan? Isn't that a bit old hat (then again, there hasn't been a good orphan since Oliver Twist, but I digress)?
Given whatever flaws it had (and yes, there were some) Half-Blood Prince does something that other Potter films have not done. First, it is a true sequel because it starts from pretty much where the last one (Order of the Phoenix) left off. Second, it leads straight to the sequels, since we are introduced to the concept of the horcruxes and a mystery about R.A.B. Third, we get a mixture of other Potter films: the cute Potions montage could have come straight from Sorcerer's Stone, the mysterious book from Chamber of Secrets, romance from Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix. However, Half-Blood Prince has strong acting, an involving story(ies), and genuine moments of terror. It is even generous in removing a horribly needless plot point (goodbye, Dursleys)--though it keeps another horribly needless plot point (hello, Quidditch), but also spends some time showing other characters and their conflicts (even if it short-changes others). I don't know if it's the best of the bunch, but Half-Blood Prince certainly is one of the better Potter films to come round. It just might cast a spell on me yet.
Now taking center stage, Slytherin's own Draco Malfoy.