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. "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

If this were a story told in one book, the 6th year at Hogwarts would occupy but a few chapters. With all the earmarks of a transitional piece, it starts with a prologue in which the Death Eaters, an evil cabal of fiends acting on behalf of their dark lord, Voldemort, and led by Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter with her wickardry [SIC] turned up full blast), pressures Severus to commit to Narcissa Malfoy his protection of her son Draco (Tom Felton) in the execution of his unstated but obviously dark mission. By this unbreakable vow, Severus earns a new title.

What immediately follows is a demonstration of how the Death Eaters propel themselves through space and solid walls, blazing a trail that leaves in its wake a gaseous black matter which dissipates in curliques of evil portent. Invisible to Muggles, the cause behind the havoc these demonic creatures wreak on London is unknown, but the visible effect of such things as popping the massive support cable of the Millenium Bridge and then whipping it around like so much supple leather alarms the population while thrilling us with the awesome spectacle of such large scale destructive force. All the more impressive that they have been prevented from entering Hogwarts.

Malevolent as these character conceptions are, it's the computer graphic team's magic, which seems limitless, that's equally to be applauded. Of all the skillful work being accomplished these days in major studio releases ("Transformers," "Star Trek," "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," for example), the Harry Potter series is, arguably, the most visually stunning, with every frame, still or dynamic, a masterpiece that creates great pleasure for intent fans or mere moviegoing onlookers alike.

Depleted by his injurious confrontation with Voldemort, aware, now, of the power he's up against should be continue being the vanguard of the good and decent, Harry is thinking of sitting this year out at Hogwarts. But professor Dumbledore persists, and takes Harry back into the fold, to join his mates and the returned professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) teaching potions.

The new (to us) faculty member of each year of the school's curriculum is always well designed to provide the stimulus of fresh ideas and the variance in the balance of forces, political and supernatural. Slughorn's classroom assignment may be potions, but it's something in his memory that is so vital to Dumbledore and, by necessity, to Harry.

As he comes to class a bit late because of his reticence, he's given his choice of textbook. In a spot exam in which the successful student wins the very special and much coveted Luck potion, Harry demonstrates that what a student might achieve through the instrument of deception is its own form of magic and, to be applauded. When he discovers annotations and corrections in dosages throughout the book, he follows them to the letter and comes out the classroom winner. He owes one to the original owner of the book, claimed by none other than the Half-Blood Prince. One more notch of mystery on the walls of Hogwarts, and all the more meaningful when the potion plays a role in eliciting a purposely obscured memory about a key encounter with Art Riddle, the menacing genius who becomes Lord Voldemort.

A stimulative effect in this installment is the cast's maturation and how that's taken into account in the grand scheme. It's delightful to see our favorite kids acquiring the trappings, awareness and hormonal pressures of teenagers. It's refreshing to see them now as near-adults, with their personal intrigues and incipient sexual impulses. It's wicked lechery to see Emma Watson become the stunning beauty we all knew she would. But how far can you go in exploiting this factor in lieu of advancing the overall story progression that seems to move so sparingly in a two-and-a-half-hour- plus framework.

The episode of the great Gryffindor's Quidditch match, in which Ron takes the position of goalie with credible athletic prowess, is a pleasant diversion.

That there is a great and final conflict brewing against Hogwarts, the sides are clear. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) with their mentoring allies Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and Slughorn vs. enemies Severus Snape (Alan Rickman--who deliciously lives up to his name with an unbeatable attitude of pernicious reproach), and Draco. is clear, and it provides what backbone of suspense permeates the atmosphere. But if you're not totally enraptured by the pictorialization of J.K. Rowlings literary imagery, the level of suspense tends to evaporate in the slow heat of exposition.

There are many new elements of interest here, the new hormonal effects on the teenagers most of all, but the impending conflict remains impending, and the tension suffers for it. Yet what could be done to jazz up the excitement in so limited a transitional episode? Ron's love affair? Hermione's disappointment? Draco's repetitious dates with the ancient Vanishing Cabinet and his continual stalking around the corners and corridors of Hogwarts? The suspense of seeing how director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves will deliver the details of the book is not entirely satisfying in itself.

When The Half-Blood Prince finally identifies himself, about all he does is claim his book. How minimal with a title character can you get?

If anyone were to know how to amp it up it should be screenwriter Steve Kloves, who wrote most of the episodes and is slated for the two-parter, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" for release in the next two years. But, I believe, faithfulness to J.K. Rowling's brilliant and extraordianary novel series, for better or worse, constrained him--particularly in how far to take the sexual awakening component. As Severus might tell you, "a commitment is a commitment."

Director David Yates ("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix") whose career is largely TV and obscure features, led the realization of it with steadiness and the patience to forestall the higher drama in what's to come in The Deathly Hallows, the finality of this phenomenon in the book and movie world.

Nicholas Hooper's soundtrack is cleverly assertive and inventive, while Bruno Delbon's cinematography shows the best of what can be done to turn the craft into art under ideal conditions and huge budgets. His close ally in the visual department is designer Stuart Craig, whose work is brilliant and stunning and part of what makes the visuals a major, bewitching force.

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The early returns indicate that the relatively modest dramatic content did no harm to the popularity of the series, the essentials of which are the historically wide readership and enduring emotional attachments to the book, and the visual elegance of what's seen on screen. Except for the hormonal effects of advancing maturation which adds a vividly rushing reality no book can, it's my belief that when it's time to look back on the series as a completed whole, the sixth year will be considered the least of the genealogy. But it serves its purpose and function by preparing us for that which is to come.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  
Links to reviews of the other episodes:
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"
"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"
"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"
"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"
"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1"

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