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Josh Reviews Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

July 20th, 2009
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Let’s establish right from the get-go that I have not read any of the Harry Potter books.

Well, actually, that’s not quite true.  The day before the first Harry Potter movie opened, the friends I was going to see the movie with found out that I hadn’t read the book, and insisted that I do so before seeing the movie.  So I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in a few hours, the night before seeing the flick.  To be honest, I didn’t much care for the book, nor did I much care from the movie.

Despite that less-than-auspicious beginning, I have seen all of the other Harry Potter films.  I found the second film to be as uninspired as the first, and while I enjoyed Alfonso Cuaron’s direction of the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, that movie’s story remains my least favorite of the entire series, mostly due to all of the time-travel silliness.  Things picked up with the fourth installment, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I found to be much more complex and interesting than the first three tales (many of my friends say the same of the novel).  But it was only with the fifth film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, that I walked out of the movie theatre completely dazzled by what I had seen.  I truly loved that film, finding it to be dramatic, emotional, and completely engaging from the first scene to the last.  Having not read the rest of books, that movie left me quite desperate to see the sixth installment, so I could find out what happens next!

So, did Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince live up to my feelings about the Order of the Phoenix?

Well, not quite, but I did still find it to be a delightfully entertaining and compelling film, one that is very successful in its own right.

My greatest pleasure from watching the Half-Blood Prince (and, frankly, ALL of this series so far) has been seeing the terrific group of kids grow up from film to film.  I’m thinking of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, of course, but also of all the other kids in supporting roles who we have come to know and love while watching them in six movies.   The kids are all terrific, and the consistency of their presence (even those of them who only appear in small, background roles) really helps bring the story to life, and lends Hogwarts the feeling of a living, breathing community.  It’s quite an astounding thing to sit back and contemplate that not a single actor has had to be re-cast from the first film!  And it’s also astonishing that they have all grown up to be such fine actors and actresses, with nary a stinker in the bunch.  I criticized, a few moments ago, the first two Harry Potter installments that were directed by Chris Columbus, but I must heap praise on Mr. Columbus’ casting abilities.  With each new film, the success of those choices he made almost a decade ago becomes more and more undeniable.

Visually, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a delight.  There are some moments of extraordinary spectacle, to be sure, and they are dazzling.  (I’m thinking about the Death Eater attacks early in the film; Ron’s Quidditch successes; and Harry and Dumbledore’s attempt to destroy the Horcrux in the hidden cave.)  But what has been particularly pleasing about these past several Harry Potter films is the way that every scene seems to be filled with some form of magic or another.  The line between what is a set or a practical effect and what is a computer-enhanced visual effects shot has become completely blurred, so the viewer isn’t distracted by the visual razzle-dazzle.  Rather, it all blends together in the creation of a fully-realized magical world for these wonderful characters and stories to inhabit.  This is an extraordinarily impressive achievement.

Wow, so far so good!  So why didn’t I love this new film to quite the same degree that I enjoyed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix?

Well, two reasons.  First, I have found all of the Harry Potter movies (and, again, I can only judge the movies, not the books) to be somewhat limited, narratively, by the conceit that every film takes place over the course of one school year at Hogwarts.  It’s a clever idea, but in execution it means that, in each movie, the events set up at the start of the film (and the start of the new year) cannot be resolved until the end of the year.  I have found this frustrating, at times, as I ask myself why aren’t the characters being more pro-active in working to resolve the situations they’re facing.  I think that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the most successful film at addressing this concern, as the story of McCarthyism at Hogwarts provided the characters with a fully believable excuse as to why they couldn’t focus on the growing evil outside of the school walls — because they were distracted by all the goings on within the school.

That’s not to say that I found the Hogwarts storylines in the Half-Blood Prince to be boring.  Quite the contrary, I was quite taken by all the romantic goings-on.  But I still found myself asking, after the events of the last film and the horrific Death Eater attacks at the start of this one, why weren’t any of the “good” wizards more actively fighting Voldemort and his minions?  What happened to the student-lead “Dumbledore’s army”?  Where were the members of the Order of the Phoenix?  Just what were they DOING all year long??  These nagging questions weakened the over-all film for me.

Which brings me to my second concern, which is that of all the movies, this one felt the most like important bits were missing, and I was left with a LOT of questions that I felt should have been addressed.  Here are a few:

Exactly how did Dumbledore locate the Horcrux that he and Harry attempt to destroy towards the end of the film?  Where was that creepy cliff/cave located?  Was there some significance to that spot?

Where/how exactly did Dumbledore get all those memories of Voldemort?

What exactly was the transportation box that Malfoy used to breach Hogwarts’ defenses?  Why was that just lying around Hogwarts, and how was he able to repair it?

What is the significance of Snape being the Half-Blood Prince?  What does that mean?  Who gave him that name?  Is one of his parents a muggle?  Why does that matter?  Seeing as how “the Half Blood Prince” is the title of the film, I expected the Half-Blood Prince, whatever/whoever he was, to have a much larger significance to the story as opposed to just a couple of seemigly throw-away lines.

I assume that more details on all of the above can be found in the book.  I understand that cuts have to be made in an adaptation, but I would have expected to get some answers to the above questions in the film itself.

So those things were a bit disappointing to me.  But, still, they don’t come close to outweighing everything that I enjoyed about the film.  I haven’t even mentioned the spectacular “adult” cast.  As always, I was completely bowled over by Michael Gambon as Dumbledore.  Nothing against the late, great Richard Harris (who portrayed Dumbledore in the first two films), but I have vastly preferred Gambon’s version of the character, and I was thrilled that Dumbledore was such a central character here.  It was also nice to see a little more of Snape than usual, although as with every previous film I wish that the marvelous Alan Rickman had gotten far more screen-time!  Jim Broadbent was a terrific addition to the ensemble as Professor Horace Slughorn.  He was able to seamlessly balance silly comedy (his introduction in the form of an arm-chair, for instance) with deep sadness.  Finally, a shout-out to Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, so wonderful in every one of her scenes.  I understand that the focus of this series is on the kids, but I wish that each one of these amazing adults had multiple movies of their own to headline!!  They’re all so terrific, and I feel that there is so much more to each of their stories that I’d love to know about.  (I know, I know, read the books!!)

In the end, while not, to me, as unqualified a success as the Order of the Phoenix, I thoroughly enjoyed Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and have no reluctance in recommending it to you.  Bring on the two-part finale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows!

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