Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Darker, Richer and All Grown Up

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Darker, Richer and All Grown Up

The mood is dark. Death Eaters blight the skies, sent on their sorties by the fiendish Lord Voldemort, and in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a grim fate encircles one teenage boy like a noose around his soul. The adult he reveres most in the world has given him a mission to destroy a hugely powerful wizard, yet as he gazes in a mirror, the quivering face staring back at him belies his resolve to do the deed. It’s a dreadful burden on someone barely out of childhood, in his sixth year at Hogwarts. Will Draco Malfoy be able to do Voldemort’s bidding and kill Albus Dumbledore?

From the publication of the first Harry Potter book in 1997 to the final volume a decade later, J.K. Rowling’s septet of adventures has enchanted tens of millions of kids, their older siblings and all those adults who are as fascinated by the wizarding world as any child. The books held many delights for the very young: the Quidditch matches, magical beasts and wand work. But as Harry and his classmates entered puberty, Rowling began to address a time of grand and awful responsibilities, the transformation of the body before the mind is ready, the queasy realization that every decision can have ecstatic or cataclysmic consequences. In a word, adolescence.

The Potter film adaptations, after a subpar start in late 2001, have grown in richness and power until, in aggregate, they stand close to the summit of multipart movies — more sprawling if less artistically ambitious than The Lord of the Rings, more consistently intelligent though less original than the six Star Wars films. By the time the series is completed with a two-part telling of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, due to open in November 2010 and July 2011, its release cycle will be nearly as long as the 10 years Rowling took to publish her books.

Beyond its longevity records and the billions it has amassed in box-office and DVD revenues, the Harry Potter series is a proud, mammoth act of commercial, communal filmmaking. It’s Hollywood at its finest, though the setting, accent, ensemble cast and most of the creative team are — as with the James Bond films — distinctly English.

With Half-Blood Prince, again we have a stalwart, satisfying visualization of the Rowling cosmos. Screenwriter Steve Kloves and director David Yates, the BBC veteran who also helmed Order of the Phoenix, concoct a potent brew of horror and romance, in which the supercool special effects — notably a swoopy-cam ride with the Death Eaters as they soar over London’s monuments and through its creepiest streets — never obscure a commitment to the book’s central theme. True to Rowling’s portrayal of the teen experience, the film is almost wholly occupied with school: the business of getting good grades and the influence of inspiring or maleficent teachers. Plus, of course, sex.

That’s sex in a very PG, Potter fashion. The “snogging” engaged in by the 16-year-olds has a chaste, comic choreography, as if kissing were a minuet of locked lips. When Harry and his pal Ron Weasley talk furtively about the girls they’re mad for, it’s to acknowledge vaguely that they have “nice skin.” And when our hero’s notoriety makes the Hogwarts girls just wild about Harry, his friend-girl Hermione can’t suppress a little sulfur puff of rancor. “She’s only interested in you,” Hermione snits about one lass, “because she thinks you’re the Chosen One.” Harry’s playful reply has a matter-of-fact finality: “I am the Chosen One.” That’s his honor, curse and destiny.