Let's face it; there isn't a more critic-proof movie this summer than the latest Harry Potter installment. The books and films are now part of our entertainment psyche, with J.K. Rowling shrewdly maturing her characters and story as her audience grows up.
As the sixth in a series of eight movies (the final book will be split into two films), The Half-Blood Prince, much like its corresponding novel, is darker and more deliberate than its predecessors, setting up the final confrontation between Harry and his evil nemesis, Voldemort. Rowling, channeled through Steve Klove's adaptation, also tackles the raging teenage hormones that addle its lead characters, who are now on the threshold of adulthood. And, like good children's literature, these sexual and romantic awakenings are accompanied by a profound sense of loss, whether it's loss of innocence or life.
Of all the Potter films so far, David Yates' second stab at the series (he directed Order of the Phoenix) is clearly the most human, focusing on the flirtings and yearnings of Harry's pals Ron and Hermione, while deepening the bond between Professor Dumbledore (the always terrific Michael Gambon) and the boy wizard (Daniel Radcliffe). The comic interludes are light and engaging, while a slowly unfolding mystery involving Hogwort's new potions professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) is suitably intriguing (if a tad undramatic). The biggest problem with Half-Blood is that Kloves' script mimics the novel's highly episodic nature, delivering what feels like a two-and-a-half hour second act. Worse, he inexplicably abandons the book's pyrotechnical finale, letting the story peter out with promises of more to come in the sequels. With little setup, few instances of real danger and an understated climax, newcomers will be hopelessly lost and even, at times, bored. Despite some incredible individual sequences, Half-Blood is a gorgeously shot placeholder film that may satisfy stalwarts but struggles to define its dramatic relevancy in the series.
Which isn't to undersell the film's strengths: Each series chapter has been technically superior to the last and this installment is no exception. From its dizzying death-eater opening to a snow-covered Quidditch match to an extremely creepy journey into one of Voldemort's lairs, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie) treats audiences to stunning landscapes filled with metallic hues and velvety shadows. What the film lacks in locomotion and cohesion is made up in mood and atmosphere, giving greater emotional weight to a story that's determined to underplay its most dramatic moments.
There's no getting around that J.K. Rowling's epic tale was foremost meant to be read. Considering the increasing lengths of the later tomes, she's almost deliberately undermining the potential vitality of the films, packing her novels with characters, subplots and details no movie could hope to emulate. And I say bully to her! No amount of CGI can replace the rousing highs and heart-rending lows of her books' imagination. For those who love the power of the written word, Harry Potter provides an important and wonderful gateway for children to encounter literature. For the rest, the movies provide a tantalizing taste of what they are missing. Let's hope they decide to take a bigger bite.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].