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As Harry Potter begins his 6th year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he discovers an old book marked mysteriously "This book is the property of the Half-Blood Prince" and begins to learn more about Lord Voldemort's dark past.
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The real test of any long running franchise is when you get to the point that major elements of the story become based on that which has come before, and the film risks devolving into advanced self-referral.
"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" doesn't entirely fall into that trap, but it's certainly wavering on the brink. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has returned for his penultimate year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to prepare himself the trials ahead as he learned in the previous film that he is the only one who can defeat the dark wizard, Voldemort. Darker and more dangerous than that, he and his classmates are learning what it means to be adults, and everything that entails.
A lot of the preparation, and the potentially dangerous self-reference that would go along with it, is left in the background as a reason for character work, which would normally be the best way to go about it, but I'm not sure it's entirely worked here. Director David Yates ("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix") definitely still seems more comfortable with character interactions set pieces and he has plenty to work from in "Half-Blood Prince," and yet not all of it is entirely interesting.
The character's are sixteen, or thereabouts, now and teen romance would seem to naturally be something it's time for them to really get into. And teen romance is what we get – from Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron's (Rupert Grint) shy dancing around each other to Harry and Ginny Weasley's (Bonnie Wright), er, shy dancing around each other. There's a lot of shy dancing going on here. The kind of 'I like him, but does he like me' and 'I like her but does she like me' stuff that fills a lot of teen girl romances and is usually frightfully dull for anyone else.
Actually, that's a bit too harsh. Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves (most of the Harry Potter films) have a good eye for the charming, something the series is finding harder and harder to come by as the characters move further and further away from childhood. That's natural of course--"Harry Potter" is ultimately a coming-of-age story after all--but that knowledge doesn't change the effect the stories have on their audience. And the moments were it tries to get back to that, such as the introduction of the school's newest potions master (Jim Broadbent) often feel hopelessly out of place. You just can't go home again.
It's on the darker side where "Half-Blood Prince" really thrives, especially when it turns its attention to Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) who is finally given something to do besides sneer and swan about like a spoiled brat. Draco has been given a task by Voldemort himself and rather than just use that as a plot point, the story spends some time focusing on its effect on Draco.
Villains are always better when they're made out of real people and as far as the darker side goes, that seems to be "Half-Blood Prince's" main brief. When Harry's not out pining with unrequited love, he is spending his time with Professor Dumbledore gaining insight into Voldemort's past as they try to find the dark wizard's weakness. The Harry-Dumbledore scenes have tended in the past to be among the strongest in the series, and that's still the case here, particularly near the end.
In fact, what has been good about the series is still good, and there is little experimentation going on. The natural screen chemistry between Harry and his two best friends is as good as it has been and their scenes together are among the few that manage to grab some of the natural fun the earlier installments had. Unfortunately there are few scenes of just the three of them, as room has to be made for their various romantic entanglements in the shape of Ginny Weasley and Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), neither of whom are as interesting as the character's they're upstaging.
Lavender is intensely irritating, with her high pitched voice and giggle. She's meant to be of course, but the danger with character's that are meant to aggravate is that they can be too successful. Every time she appears there is an intense urge to check out until she's gone.
More problematic is Ginny Weasley, who takes on quite a bit of screen time despite being the least charismatic of any of Harry's friends. She's never had much to do before this point and the filmmakers strive mightily to overcome that problem, inventing an action scene halfway through the two-and-a-half our film (that, to be honest, it desperately needed) and inserting her into the story as much as possible without being heavy handed. The filmmakers are skillful enough to almost pull it off, but they're hampered by the actor's lack of onscreen chemistry and the character's lack of development. She's never been as quirky and likeable as some of the other side characters; it's almost as if they've forgotten she was there until suddenly realizing they needed her, and are scrambling to make up lost ground. But in the face of other more developed and charismatic actors and storylines, she vanishes a bit. This wouldn't be so bad if a third of the film didn't revolve around her to some extent. The filmmakers tend to play her and Harry's burgeoning relationship off against Ron and Hermione's, but all that really does is show off how uninteresting she is.
"Half-Blood Prince" only really shines when the films darker and lighter sides manage to meet together, usually when Slughorn is around, as Harry has tries to sidle up to him to extract the missing piece of the Voldemort puzzle at a bar or during a bizarre funeral for a dead giant spider. There are a lot of little pieces like that to enjoy, but there are so many disparate pieces working, so much weight of what's come before that has to be carried, that it never really gels together. You spend most of your time wading between moments of boredom to find the odd island of real enjoyment.
It doesn't help that it's probably the least focused of the group, with no real villain to deal with or mystery to solve. It makes a try at it, but the story's interest is elsewhere, leaving a finale that (when it does actually arrive) comes off as hurried. It feels like Yates attention is elsewhere, throwing in some spectacle frankly because it's expected.
Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of good bits in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." Rowling's too good a story-teller and Yates and Kloves are too good of filmmakers for the case to be otherwise. What good there is mainly speaks to viewers of the entire series, with only a little to entice "Harry Potter" newcomers into the fold. That's probably just a side-effect of a long running series but it doesn't particularly help the film itself as it tries to serve too many masters and in the end it never quite makes it.