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The legend of the Boy Who Lived continues to evolve. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth of J.K. Rowling’s seven literary doorstops to be rendered on the big screen, is both sillier and darker than its predecessors. At 153 minutes, it’s just as epic, and Order of the Phoenix director David Yates returns to highlight the spookiness of the main plot. But anyone who’s been following the films shouldn’t be surprised by Half-Blood’s principal attributes: It boasts plenty mystery but little wonder. The kids are no longer cute, but, like, cute. And the humor of magic-gone-wrong has been replaced with the broadness of hormones-gone-crazy.
The latter is this movie’s biggest misstep, with scripter Steve Kloves (who wrote films one through four) and Yates cramming 600-plus pages of secret crushes, wound-licking, and boy-girl miscommunication into sitcom-ready footnotes that bear no hint of Rowling’s subtlety. Among the teen-angst victims are, of course, best mates Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson). Hermione and Ron kinda like each other but are too embarrassed to admit it; instead they each get pouty when they see the other in the default arms of cocky, dashing Cormac (Freddie Stroma) and clingy, hysterical Lavender (Jessie Cave), respectively. Harry, meanwhile, is developing tingly feelings toward Ron’s younger sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright)—but even if she weren’t dating Dean (Alfie Enoch), Harry knows that acting on his attraction could only lead to trouble.
At the beginning of the story, both the Muggle and magical worlds are crippled with disasters courtesy of Lord Voldemort’s band of Death Eaters. (Voldemort, of course, is the most powerful of evil wizards and Harry’s fated enemy. But if you don’t already know that, why are you even reading this?) Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), Hogwarts’ former Potions instructor and Harry’s more uncertain nemesis, appears to be on Voldemort’s side, as does student Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton, looking about twice as old as the other kids), who has been given a mandate by the Dark Lord himself.
Harry suspects Draco is up to something but is asked by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), the school’s headmaster, to concentrate his energy on private lessons during which Dumbledore gives Harry insight into Voldemort’s past via bottled memories. He’s also given a tricky assignment: Talk the new potions professor, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), into revealing a crucial memory regarding one of the teacher’s conversations with a teenage Voldemort, a nugget of history that Dumbledore has possession of but that Slughorn has intentionally obscured.
There’s more depth to Rowling’s Half-Blood story, but even in the film’s simplified presentation, nonreaders may not grasp much beyond Dumbledore/Harry vs. Draco/Evil, with a couple of Quidditch scenes in between. Remarkably, this doesn’t hinder the movie’s pace; between the love stories and Harry’s vague need to triumph, there’s plenty to keep the audience interested.
As with the earlier Potter flicks, the cinematography here is striking: The predominant look is desaturated and thickly gray, with castle interiors softened by candlelight. Yates paints some creepy imagery, too—somewhat surprising considering this is the first PG-rated installment since 2004’s Azkaban—including Gollum-like creatures that emerge from a lake to attack Harry, the Death Eaters’ Dark Mark, which appears in stormy skies as a loosely defined skull, and a cursed girl who’s lifted into the air, her arms outstretched and her mouth frozen into a scream so wide it seems like her jaw’s unhinged. (Though this is all top-notch, you have to wonder what potential director Guillermo del Toro would have done with the material had he not turned down the project to make the visually gorgeous but subpar Hellboy II.)
The cast, as always, seems born into these roles, with Broadbent making a skilled series debut as the largely goofy but haunted Slughorn. Even Radcliffe doesn’t seem as stiff this time out. It may be unfortunate that Half-Blood trades some of Rowling’s more delicate charms and foreboding for screen-ready guffaws and black/white conflict. But it’s still one of the smarter pieces of cinema that kids—and, really, adults as well—will see this summer.