Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince opens with several Death Eaters, flying through the air while enveloped in plumes of dark mist (like the children of Lost’s smoke monster), wreaking havoc in the world of muggles. Not only do they bust up a magic shop, but they also down a bridge in London, killing untold numbers of pedestrians. If you had any doubts that The Half Blood Prince would continue the sinister atmosphere of the previous installments, then the first few moments of the film should put those doubts to rest with a swift knock to the head. This time out Voldemort is at full power and his minions have free reign over their world and ours.
Each Harry Potter film contributes one piece to the overall puzzle regarding Voldemort’s past and Harry’s role as his Achilles heel (or would he be the arrow that can pierce the Achilles heel). In The Half Blood Prince the new Potions professor, Horace Slughorn, holds that next piece. Dumbledore recruits Slughorn for the upcoming school year in hopes that he will divulge a conversation he once had with Voldemort, known at the time as Tom Riddle, before his transformation into pure evil. Slughorn views his job as more than just a teacher in a classroom. He also establishes a coterie of young wizards and wishes who he believes it is his duty to fashion into adults. Harkening back to an earlier time, Slughron is the type of professor who would call the special something he recognizes in these students as “character.” In a bit of espionage, Harry must creep his way underneath Slughorn’s wing in hopes to uncover the secret conversation.
This time around, the melodrama of high school dating is pushed to the forefront, but unlike in previous films these aren’t moments the viewer must endure to get to the world of magic but rather enjoyable in their own right. The appeal of the Harry Potter series has always been its marriage of fantastical adventure with the everyday drama of grade school. But until The Half Blood Prince the quotidian half of that equation has always paled in comparison to the otherworldly. One of the joys of this lengthy series of films has been the evolution of the three main actors from passable children stars to the ideal embodiment of their characters. The Half Blood Prince also provides all three actors some great ensemble and individual moments to work with. Much of the high school plotline stems from a love triangle between Hermione, Ron and Ron’s new squeeze Lavender. Just as Hermione has come to realize her feelings for Ron, he has found someone new. (Although, I just can’t picture those two getting old together. I imagine Ron wearing a wife beater in front of the television while Hermione fetches him another Natty Light from the fridge). Harry, likewise, reaches the age where he’s ready to start dating, but has yet to recognize Ginny Weasley’s longtime crush on him.
Perhaps the most ingenious aspect of The Half Blood Prince is how the minutia of high school life becomes a major plot point. We all remember the used textbooks that were seemingly passed down from time immemorial and filled with scribbling, often obscene, of different penmanship. Well, Harry discovers one such used textbook for his Potions class that contains perfections on even the textbook’s recipes as well as some other magical tips. As a reader, I absolutely love the central place books take in the world of Harry Potter, from Tom Riddle’s diary to the importance of the library (Hogwarts just wouldn’t be Hogwarts if they had the internet). As a blockbuster children’s author, J.K. Rowlings appears to be establishing physical books as objects of value that are just as magical as any spell or potion.
The Half Blood Prince is the film where all of the elements of a Harry Potter film—the ingenious magic spells, the battle between forces of good and evil, the childhood romance—all finally come together, like a supernatural potion, into a perfect brew. The genius of J.K. Rowling is that, instead of writing sequels for a new wave of eight year olds every other year, she let her books mature with her audience, allowing her characters, plot and prose all grow along with the children who may have read the first book when they were even younger than Harry in his first adventure. In The Half Blood Prince, for example, the character of Draco Malfoy, who had always been a nasty little pipsqueak, must decide whether he is more loyal to Hogwarts or to the Death Eaters. In earlier installments it was always clear that Draco served as one of the villains, but as the stakes have risen, even the more wicked characters have trouble contending with the consequences or their actions.
Likewise, with each installment the films have displayed stunning visual complexity to match the emotional density. And the visuals for The Half Blood Prince are perhaps some of the best of the series. The director, David Yates, utilizes the byzantine angles of Hogwarts castle to cut and dissect the space between multiple characters, illustrating the levels of intrigue that are simultaneously occurring at the expansive Hogwarts compound. The framing owes much to Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, another film that takes place within the cold confines of a castle. The color palate of the film mimics a daguerreotype tan, giving the movie an atemoporal timelessness. The world of Hogwarts has always been a bricolage of differing time periods, combining medieval signifiers, like wizards and castles, with memorabilia from the 1940s. To move from the world of the muggles to the world of magic is as much a movement in time as it is a movement in space.
It is often cited as a critical truism that The Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the series (although, this is not necessarily the case for fans of the book). I can understand why so many critics make this assertion, and The Prisoner of Azkaban is indeed one of the top films of the series, but I truly believe that The Half Blood Prince takes the prize for the best film in the franchise. Azkaban is a success for two reasons: 1) it was the first instance of a textual and emotional maturation of the series and 2) the film stripped away much of the grade school drama that had gummed up the works in past installments, making the first Harry Potter film that felt like a large scale blockbuster, even if its running time was slightly shorter. The reason why The Half Blood Prince is an even better film than The Prisoner of Azkaban is because instead of hiding from some of the soap opera elements of past installments, the film chose to strengthen those aspects of the story, making the viewer just as concerned with who Harry might end up dating as they are with whether or not Harry and Dumbledore will find the correct enchanted object to stop Voldemort. With the sixth film in the series, director David Yates has finally positioned Harry Potter as a fantasy world of cinema to be considered alongside the likes of The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, and The Princess Bride. You might disagree with whether or not these films deserve a place next to these esteemed films, but as the series draws to a close it is impossible to ignore their place within the genre of fantasy.