Giddy Hogwarts: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

To review the sixth film of those insufferable preening Hogwarts urchins struck me as equivalent to critiquing a new McDonalds on the edge of town. Wasn't the wand-waving, special effects-laden climax of The Order of the Phoenix unbelievably long? Isn't Voldemort Ralph Fiennes' dullest role? When it comes to today's youth and their reading habits, should their main diet consist of this endless forced preppy wish-fulfillment in the guise of a black-robed geek with his Lennonesque round glasses and rebaked Merlin headmaster? (One can find the pernicious influence of this franchise at the local MagiQuest amusement castle, where whole families can "use their magic wands and earn powers to achieve increasing levels of success as they venture into their chosen quest through role-playing, intellect, teamwork, and imagination!" I've seen the MagiQuest billboards where even smiling Dad holds his wand aloft as he attempts to look dignified.) Even trying to think of the endless Harry Potter films and their many awkward compressions from the J. K. Rowling books makes my brain hurt.

Having said all of that, and having suffered an acquaintance who kept smugly telling me that Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie a hefty 98% approval rating just before we went to see it (it is now down to a more earthbound 83%), I reluctantly found that this chapter of the franchise has five good points after all.

1) The film begins with a fun point of view shot that falls toward London, swoops around, and ends up with Death Eaters wrecking the Millenium Bridge right near my favorite Tate Modern museum.

2) The Half-Blood Prince seems much more pleasantly self-aware than other Potter movies. Early on, we see Harry blinded by the flashbulb lights of the press. A waitress asks him if he is actually Harry Potter, and he says no, but he knows him. When Harry runs into other characters, they tend to acknowledge his fame as the possible "Chosen One" (like Neo's quandary in The Matrix). After one adventure, Ginny Weasley asks, "Why is he [Harry] always covered in blood?" In another scene, Prof. McGonogall (Maggie Smith) asks Harry, Ron, and Hermione (Emma Watson), "Why is it that whenever someone's in trouble, it is always you three?" At least this film acknowledges its many conventions as it indulges in them.

3) Where Hermione and Ron largely stood around for the last few films, this time they have real roles since Ron has to contend with the amusing mad-groupie affection of Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) and Hermione finds herself inexplicably jealous. Ron's sister Ginnie (Bonnie Wright) also has a strong interest in Harry, which makes Ron feel brotherly and protective, at odds with his friend. Some may say that all of this adolescent hoorah might be beside the point in the grand overarching narrative of the Potter/Voldemort confrontation, but I found the film more humorous and engaging as a result, even though bland Ginnie is a cipher compared to the others.

4) The potions are more fun this time. Ron goes completely love-silly on some love potion, and even Potter gets noticeably high when he drinks some "Liquid Luck." Between him and the already dotty Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), the movie gets giddy for awhile, which helped alleviate the grim maneuvres of bad guys like Draco Malfoy.

5) In part due to the inside jokes, The Half-Blood Prince has a more lived-in, offhand quality. It no longer needs to overwhelm us with its whimsy. Instead of hippogriffs, we get introduced to one large dead spider. Instead of reptilian Ralph Fiennes without a nose, we get a younger Voldemart known as Tom Riddle (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, hired due to resemblance to his uncle Ralph). Tom disdainfully enjoys bossing around snakes when he's not sneaking information from his professors. Even though you need to read the book to fully understand the overblown conclusion, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is more easygoing about its magic and its myth. It has an uncommonly light touch--a neat trick when so much money rides on the continued success of the franchise.