A film review by Craig J. Koban July 31, 2009


2009, PG, 153 mins.

Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliffe / Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint / Hermione Granger: Emma Watson / Bellatrix Lestrange: Helena Bonham Carter / Ginny Weasley: Bonnie Wright / Horace Slughorn: Jim Broadbent / Albus Dumbledore: Michael Gambon / Severus Snape: Alan Rickman

Directed by David Yates / Screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling.

A “muggle” is a word described in the HARRY POTTER book series by J.K. Rowling as a person who lacks any sort of sorcerer's powers and who is not born into the magical world.

Now, my knowledge of this intimate detail precludes that I am either the biggest nerd alive or I have swift access to the Internet and wikipedia.  I must confess…I am of the latter category. 

The more I sit through – make that tolerate -  the HARRY POTTER film series the more they make me feel like a hopeless and untutored muggle.  Anyone that has followed my site over the years has known that I have developed a bit of an infamous reputation for being quite hard on the cinematic exploits of Harry, Hermione, and Ron as they try to rid their magical world of evil, all while coming to grips with evil forces, their newfound feelings towards the opposite sex, and hair growing in awkward places.   Yet, this series as a whole is increasingly pushing me away as an outsider: Great, visionary escapist fantasies should feel euphorically inviting.  In the HARRY POTTER world, I am gaining a strong and pervasive impression that I am - and always will be - a muggle to this strange universe, which seems to be tailored ostensibly for the rabid Potterite fan base of the literary works.   

For non-readers and lay filmgoers, HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE – the sixth of seven novels in Rowling’s inordinately cherished book series – will be borderline incomprehensible.  Virgins to these stories would greatly benefit from a pop-up trivia track to elaborate on the comings and goings of the characters and their respective stories.  And…yes…I know that these films are based on literature that are held in fanatical esteem by its legion of die hard aficionados, but these films act as an interesting conundrum for the film critic: Is it acceptable for film adaptations to be beyond slavishly faithful to the source material to the point where they alienate a larger audience that is not as taken away with Harry Potter la-la land?   

HALF BLOOD PRINCE, much like the previous two installments (THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and THE GOBLET OF FIRE), have storylines that seem to inopportunely languish in their authenticity to their sources.  Very akin to another beloved fantasy film series based on literature, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the POTTER films never know when to tell tight and taut narratives: there just seems to be too much appeasement to the book’s followers going on here.  What’s worse is the fact that there has been very little, if any, progression of the characters, themes, and overall story arcs from film to film, and this is seriously holding the series back from achieving any level of lasting worth. 

The supreme quandary that has beset both THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE and the last three POTTER films is a sense of repetitive sameness: None of these recent entries feel truly self-contained, nor is there a continuation of a larger story.  They have no real beginning, middle, or end.  Instead, we get vignettes, set pieces, a considerable amount of talking about a villainous threat that has barely made a dent in the series, an obligatory Hardy Boy-esque mystery that needs to be solved, and unsatisfying conclusions that seem to always leave me thinking that the major characters have not changed one iota from the opening moments.  Now, just think about this: HARRY POTTER is now six films old – count ‘em: six – and has the title character himself seen any sort of radical alteration from the first film, other than the fact that he is taller, more deep voiced, and has troubles dealing with perfunctory adolescent angst?  Oh…right…he still wants to avenge the death of his parents by the hands of the vile and despicable Lord Voldemort.  A cursory look at the films as a whole reveals that Potter - as played in a largely stiff and charisma-free performance by Daniel Radcliffe (more on him later) - is kind of a dull stiff.  Yes, he’s plucky, determined, and has a passion for wand-waving derring-do and justice, but as far as the pantheon of great movie “Chosen Ones”, he’s a lamentable and underwritten bore as a persona.  

Neo he ain’t. 

And speaking of Lord Voldemort, has there ever been a less tangible screen villain in fantasy history?  Certainly, Rowling’s intent with the character was to slowly build him up as a menacing and haunting figure that lurks in the shadows of Harry’s past and subconscious, but this series is six going on seven films and he has still remained a non-entity.  I am growing wearier by the minute sitting through these films hearing endless expositional dialogue about the “threat” of this antagonist without actually seeing him.  Voldemort becomes even more aloof and non-existent in THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE, even though he does appear in the form of a flashback where we get snippets of his youth and how he pulls a full-on Anakin Skywalker and becomes a dark lord of witchcraft.  What’s really perplexing is that a major source of the book’s storyline involved the development of Voldemort as a more three-dimensional and corporeal figure.  As far as I have been told or have read, this tantalizing back-story that could have saved the legitimacy of this character in my eyes has been largely excised from the film.  Now the Potterites and I have something in common to grumble about. 

So…nope…instead of dealing largely with the history of the villain, which would have been the reclamation of this series as a whole, THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE instead offers up too many scenes involving GOSSIP GIRL-esque teenage melodramatic love, broken hearts, and deeply pent up feelings.  You would think that the overriding presence of Voldemort would be a threat menacing enough to convince the characters that scoring with each other is probably the least appropriate right of passage for wizards.  Alas, the film yet again places less prominence on the role of the antagonist in Harry’s life and more on lame and half-baked subplots that belong more on TV shows with Beverley Hills zip codes in their title. 

For a film so long (153 minutes), THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE is pretty sparse on plot.  As it begins Harry (Radcliffe) and his two Hogwarts friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (a blossoming Emma Watson) are now in their sixth year at their wizard alma mater.  Thankfully, this new film spares us of another cameo by Potter’s vile and cruel relatives, whom the lad stayed with every off-season in the past films for reasons never fully explained).  Not much has changed for the trio: They are told that Voldemort is still public enemy number one and that Harry is the still the so-called “Chosen One” that he wants to get his hands on.  However, when Harry returns to school he slowly begins to see that he may face more threats than he initially realizes, some of which may or may not be from the school itself.   

Headmaster Dumbledore (the very good Michael Gambon) decides that the time is ripe to show Harry key moments from Volemort’s past (these scenes are nifty indeed, as his memories are sort of liquefied and kept in small tubes and once poured into a vat of water, a person can submerge their face in it and be instantly transported back in time).   In these flashback scenes – some of the most compelling in the whole series that, as stated, are dreadfully short and few and far between – we see a younger Dumbledore hook up with a disturbed boy name Tom Riddle, who later would become Harry’s nemesis.  Dumbledore hopes that these journeys to the past will assist both him and Harry in the form of discovering Voldemort’s weaknesses.   

One of the key memories – which might have been tampered with – involves a Professor named Horace Slughorn (the always dependable and cheery Jim Broadbent) that spoke to the adolescent Voldemort about forbidden magic.  Dumbledore decides to ask Harry to become a spy of sorts by becoming closer to the Professor, whom has recently returned to Hogwarts.  If Harry can find out the truth behind this distorted memory then maybe he can defeat the Dark Lord once and for all.  At the same time Harry’s number two nemeses, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton, who apparently has robbed Owen Wilson of some of his DNA) is lusting for revenge against Harry and Dumbledore for their defeat of his papa.  Meanwhile, Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) finds himself even more intimately involved in Harry’s life mission than ever before.  Oh, and throughout all of this we get to see how well the young wizards adjust to being infatuated with each other.   

Hmmmm….will Harry be able to continue his quest to defeat Voldemort while feeling queasy and shaky in the knees every time he sees Ron’s young sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright)?  Will Ron finally sweep Hermione off of her feat and pledge his undying love to her, which is what she has wanted all along?  Or, will Ron alienate the pretty and readily available young babe that is Hermione and instead hook up with an unrelentingly clingy bubblehead named Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave)?  Andmore importantly…is Dumbledore (as indirectly revealed by Rowling in 2007 while speaking at Carnegie Hall) really gay?  

One moment in the film - where he professes a love of knitting - is a definitive clue to the affirmative.

THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE was directed by the very competent Peter Yates (who helmed the last Potter film), and he and his cinematographer, production designer, and visual effects crew certainly make this one of the most lavish polished looking of all of the films in the current sextet.  THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE creates a more brooding and haunting atmosphere at Hogwarts, thanks largely to Bruno Delbonnel’s exquisite use of a cold color scheme and adept use of light and shadow.   The effects also pack a resounding and triumphant wallop (and opening action sequence – featuring Death Dealers attacking the muggles world - is a stellar and exhilarating blend of the real and simulated).  I also thought that this film’s Quidditch match was the most exemplary handled out of all of the films (granted, you’ve seen one of this contests, then you’ve seen them all).  Without hesitation, I will always proudly proclaim the HARRY POTTER films as bravura technical achievements, and THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE is no exception.

Unfortunately, the cons outweigh the pros in the film: As previously stated, the film’s grueling 153 minutes feels more punishing than normal and, considering how miniscule the actual plot is on development, HALF BLOOD PRINCE feels – more than any other of the POTTER flicks – more like an bloated and never-ending endurance test than should be.  These films have always lacked payoff: what we have is entries that regrettably feel transitional, almost as if to say in the final credits, “Don’t worry, all will be explained in the next installment.”  What we should get is a solid, robust, and well-developed script that takes its characters on a new journey, but it gets bogged down in unnecessary asides that only serve to tease and conciliate the book’s fans.  And, why so much attention on the love life of these characters?  The amount of focus on it in THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE is one of its worst offences: the idle flirtation and innuendo on display here is the least well-handled element in the series.  And, c’mon, TWILIGHT has the market cornered for rudimentary, cliché-ridded, tweener romance.

The performances here are perplexingly inconsistent.  I think that, as the series as progressed, the three main leads have grown into their parts, per se, but also seem constantly outmatched by how resoundingly assured and confidant the supporting performances have been.  When you have the likes of such gifted British thespians like Jim Broadbent, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, David Thewlis, Robbie Coltrane, and Alan Rickman, it only reveals the inadequacies of the younger, greener actors.  I especially liked the playful massiveness of Broadbent and the sullen authority of Gambon in the film, but Rickman’s Snape seems to be played now as a caricature of himself (Rickman is certainly in a class all by himself, but here he seems to be challenging William Shatner for the record for most…dramatic…pauses…in…a…line…reading, often to unintentionally funny effect).  As for the young actors, Watson and Grint are serviceable, but Radcliffe - at the risk of being sacrilegious to the Potterites – feels more like a featureless drone at the whim of the series now.  His character has motives and a committal attitude as any hero does, but there is no glimmer of magic in his eyes.   At one point another character informs the wizard that he looks, "Exceptionally ordinary."  She was not kidding.

At the end of my review for 2007’s THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX I stated that, “The longer I sit through the HARRY POTTER series the less and less patient I have grown for awaiting it to achieve the greatness that the first two films promised it would live up to.”  After sitting through THE HALF BLOOD PRICE I find myself less willing to wait and have become even more fatigued by the series than ever before.  When will this series finally commit itself to not slavishly stretch out recurring and tedious story arcs that could have been contained in one or two films and not six?  Now there is the revelation that the last Potter novel, THE DEATHLY HOLLOWS, will be exasperatingly stretched out to not one, but two films.  The motives of Rowling and the filmmakers seem obvious: financial.  Rowling, if anything, is a shrewd, cash-grabbing Merlin for how she has been able to carve herself out a mighty literary empire by regurgitating and repeating staple Potter formulas over and over again with each new book without taking the characters on new adventures and points of discovery.  The films, if they are to be considered faithful to their source, are no different.   The six current cinematic entries seem to be do nothing more than marking time before the battle between the Chosen One and the Dark Lord and, as is the case with THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE, they seems more compelled to clumsily trudge through romantic teen soap opera.  They build and build and build and with hope and promise and then continue on the same dull trajectory.  I sincerely appreciate their faithfulness to the Potterite elite, but to all of the other uninitiated viewers like me out there, these latter Potter entries have become alienating.   

What the series needs to do is placate the muggle viewers as much as its fierce loyalists.  That would be a spell worthy of Dumbledore’s considerable talents.  


CrAiGeR's other



Harry Potter and the PRISONER OF AZKABAN  (2004) jj1/2

Harry Potter and the GOBLET OF FIRE  (2005) jj1/2

  Harry Potter and the ORDER OF THE PHOENIX  (2007)  jj

Harry Potter and the DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1  (2010) jj

Harry Potter and the DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2  (2011) jjj

And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of HARRY POTTER films:















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