Movie Review: ‘The Half Blood Prince’ is a worthy succesor

23 Jul

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (PG) 153 min.

 

cinemagrade A-Okay, I’ve been sitting on this one awhile. Being incredibly busy and having a ton of films to write-up, I haven’t gotten much chance to post lately and wanted to be able to hit several at once. So, consider this the first of a flood of new reviews rolling out over the course of today and tomorrow. And there is no better place to start than with David Yates’ newest inclusion in the Harry Potter series.

I saw HP6 last Thursday and it took me a few days to parse exactly how I felt about it. Admittedly, it took me a little while to warm up to this new Harry. I have enjoyed all of the Potter movies, including the two that jump-started the series, and I’ve read all of the books. In particular, I remember devouring Half-Blood Prince shortly after returning from my honeymoon; sitting curled up next to my wife in our small but cozy apartment, caught up in this tale of the ‘Boy Who Lived’ and his growing battle with ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’.

Suprisingly, it was one of the few installments I didn’t love. All of it felt like a construct to set up the last book, and it raced towards its compelling end in an almost clumsy fashion. So much of the story was given over to coincidental clue-finding and teen romantic farce. The novel ended with a desperate battle encompassing many foes, but early test screening reports had suggested this had been cut out of the film all together. My memory was that it had been a dark book, but the movie returned to the PG rating of the first 3. So, what exactly were we to expect from Half Blood Prince?  As it turns out, Yates’ changes and alterations to the novel’s structure have resulted in that rare adaptation; a movie that not only enriches the original story, but improves upon it.

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What works best about Half Blood Prince is that it, like the series other best entry, Prisoner of Azkaban, uses the novel as a framework and spends the majority of its running time on character development and interaction. See, I believe it’s all too easy to make the kinds of films Columbus did with the first two; slavishly faithful, bursting at the seams with event, but lacking any real heart or worthwhile drama. Almost every single character was treated as an illustrated stand-in for their book alter-ego. Dumbledore was an old, sage wizard, Hagrid a blustery giant, Harry a dazed, wide-eyed little boy–and that’s where it stopped. The same was more or less true of Goblet of Fire, where an excessive and lengthy book was distilled into a series of well-made sequences that were haphazardly tied together. I enjoyed all three of those movies, and think Nichols entry was the best of them, but I also tend to think that an adaptation of a popular work will never be capable of standing on it’s own until it offers us something unique that its source did not or can not. In the case of Half-Blood Prince, the film gives us a concievable reality for the fully realized characters to inhabit, and what has previously felt like enjoyable escapism is transformed into relevant, poignant drama. Yates gives us a satisfying and thematically edifying fairy tale that doesn’t feel like magic; it feels like practicality.

 Right from the opening scenes that pick-up only a few minutes after the last film’s showdown at the Ministry of Magic, Yates establishes a very human and personal element; Harry, having just endured attack at the hands of Voldemort and the loss of a close friend is beleagured and bewildered. The camera watches closely as Dumbledore puts a hand on his shoulder and turns him around, insinuating himself between the mobbing reporters and the distraught boy. This small meaningful gesture sets the stage for one of the picture’s most powerful components; the relationship between the old, world-weary wizard and this young man who may be the fulfillment of everything he has long fought for. And Michael Gambon, restrained and sidelined in the last three films, rises to the occasion here. He isn’t just a concept or a conciet but instead a fully realized portrait of a man whose years of gentle resistance to creeping evil have grown into a life-and-death struggle to preserve not just the school he loves, but the values at the heart of it. Radcliffe, Grint and Watson as the magical trio at the story’s center have grown literally as people and figuratively as actors over the course of the series, with Daniel as Harry proving particularly strong.

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The plot centers once more around a year at Hogwarts, but the climate of the wizard and muggle worlds is one of fear and anxiety. While the Ministry no longer holds sway over the school, those feelings have crept their way into  its hallways and the hearts and minds of the students. All over, the shadow of the Dark Lord is looming. We see Diagon Alley, deserted and empty, all loneliness and disrepair with the Weasley twins’ magic shop providing the only percievable light and warmth. Very early on, Yates stages a disaster scene worthy of Emmerich as the Death Eaters rocket through the skies of the Muggle world and magically destroy a suspended bridge. All of this is contrasted against the life of Harry. He is now in the midst of burgeoning adulthood, and his re-introduction to the audience is a witty and observant add-on involving a Muggle waitress and his attempts at flirtation. Before anything can happen that would get fans up-in-arms, Dumbledore arrives and whisks Harry off to help recruit the newest member of the Hogwarts staff, Horace Slughorn.

Jim Broadbent steps into the role of Slughorn, an old teacher who had a friendly relationship with Tom Riddle(young Voldemort), and whose ‘collecting’ practices of valueing only the most esteemed and popular students proves to be his biggest weakness. Dumbledore plans to exploit this weakness in order to retrieve a memory from Slughorn’s mind, possibly the key to understanding how to destroy Voldemort for good. His scheme involves Harry ingratiating himself to Slughorn during the school year and then coaxing the truth out of him. In the book, Slughorn was no more than a plot device; the primary hurdle and distraction for Harry and gang to solve. In the hands of Broadbent, who has been doing some exceedingly good work as of late, he becomes something else entirely. In Slughorn, Broadbent finds the charm and humor of a man who is mostly a hanger-on to greatness, his desire to bask in the orbit of extraordinary talent placing him directly in the center of this now decades old conflict. There is underlying sadness and regret to Horace, and beneath his cheerful endeavors and lavish dinner parties he hides a secret that may impact the very course of the battle.

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Also rising up from the pile of characters present in book 6 are Ginny Weasley, the new apple of Harry’s eye and Alan Rickman’s Snape, who takes on several new dimensions that call his very nature and purpose  into question. In Rowling’s prose, the question of whether Snape was a force of good or evil was left exceedingly ambiguous but it also opened a clumsy dilemna. If Snape has been playing Dumbledore a fool, and Dumbledore clearly trusts him, then Dumbledore’s status as a wise and knowing wizard is cast in doubt as is his constant call for Harry to trust him. I will not reveal the nature of Snape’s allegiance either way, other than to say it is definitively answered in the last novel. However, Yates does something impressive with the character and Rickman follows the lead and plays each of his scenes nearly dialogue free conveying such intense, expressive emotion through his eyes. We can find the case for long-dormant rage or deep regret in those eyes but now Snape and his mission have a context they did not before.

Ginny on the other hand, felt like an afterthought in the book but Yates gives her an off-kilter but steadfast charm. She embodies the tomboy quirkiness that Watson’s Hermione had in the early films but has since cast off for the attractive girl lead. Bonnie Wright has grown perfectly into this role, her onscreen evolution following the same trajectory as the character. We barely notice her at first, and only as Ron’s little sister. By the time Prince rolls around it’s impossible not to notice the fixed determined eyes, and the tight-lipped smile, upturned in only one corner. Like so many of the other supporting players, Wright exemplifies steadfastness and perservering sweetness. She isn’t a lightning rod of charm but bit by bit she proves to be a compelling choice of partner for Harry.

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And yes, the movie does spend quite a bit of time on teenage relationships and school anxiety, but surprisingly it handles this better than the book. Yates crafts everything that occurs at the school in an extremely realistic and mundane light. We are focused on the intentions of characters more than the action. Morality and the necessity of sacrifice, whether of your own life or of your deeply held desires and secrets, is illustrated more clearly as a result of this specific realism. When we venture with Harry and Dumbledore to underground caverns or into the long-shrouded memories of a young Voldemort, the film retains an air of grounded logic. It no longer feels like fantasy, but a war-time drama where youngsters struggle to find meaning and reason to defend the things they cherish. As a result, Yates makes a film about the sanctity of one’s home and the importance of defining character. In so many ways, the Potter franchise has never seemed more British.

I, for one, find that a great asset and am encouraged by the thought that Yates is directing the last two films in the franchise. With an absentee dark lord, a magical object that houses the enemy’s power, and an aging, boisterous wizard who parentally guides and guards the hero while knowing there will come a day when he no longer can, Harry Potter finally joins the narrative trajectory of Lord of the Rings. And in emphasizing the real-world similarities of Rowling’s universe, Yates has found a way to give his film a weight that feels similar to Tolkien’s series. Best of all, while Prince sets up perfectly our immersion into future installments, it also manages to do something equally wonderful; it stands on its own as a compelling fantasy.  

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10 Responses to “Movie Review: ‘The Half Blood Prince’ is a worthy succesor”

  1. wine blog July 23, 2009 at 2:00 pm #

    I saw the movie last night and I do agree that it’s a good flick. However, I didn’t like the lack of finality at the end. Yes, I do understand that it’s a series but I think at the end of each movie they should try to put a bit of finality there, that way people don’t go away thinking that this thing is just never going to end and now I have to wait another year or so just to see what will happen. I think most people enjoy a feeling of solution.

    • The Great Fatsby July 24, 2009 at 11:28 am #

      That aspect is an unfortunate side-effect of today’s ADD “sheeple” society, not a fault of the film maker.

  2. Lawman July 23, 2009 at 3:55 pm #

    I agree, for the most part. I do think though that there were a number of things that didn’t necessarily need to be added when there was so much taken out. All in all, though, a worthy addition to the franchise.

    Now, will the Senator still be around to show 7 & 8?

  3. raelynn153 July 27, 2009 at 7:53 am #

    So Ive been wanting to talk with you about this one for a while. I think we disagree a little in regards to the book but I understand your points. I actually really liked the book, I appreciated the build up and eventful conclusion. I will agree I thought the teen romance was a bit over the top and too much. (I personally would hate to imagine yuppy, over-emotional, super hormonally charged teens with magical abilities. I shutter at the thought of them as regular human beings.) Anyways back to the movie. I thought it was well acted, particularly in the way of Draco, and it was filmed very well also. However there were a few scenes I wish had been left out. Perhaps they were so frustrating because I felt like they were randomly dropped into the film at unsuspecting parts (maybe it only felt this way if you had read the book before hand) for audience thrill but rather left me momentarilly dumfounded and trying to figure out where the story went. The 2 scences in particular were where the death eaters attack and burn down the Weasley’s burrow and Harry and Ginny are out in a dizzying race through the field, and where Harry and Ginny went into the room of requirement. What was just a quick get-a-way moment to hide the book became a rather weird romantic scene in the movie which once again left it feeling awkward and out of place. In one way I like that they left it rather uneventful at the end to prepetuate the cliffhanging feeling for the next movies where perhaps they will give an all out finale, but in another I felt like the battle scence from the book could have at least been partially recreated for the movie. Just like in the first Narnia movie where the most epic scene of the book (Aslans sacrificial death) was practically treated like a side note, Dumbledores death felt somewhat insignificant and rushed. I wish there had been more character build up between Harry and Dumbledore like in the book and I wish some of the heroic qualities of the characters, which are displayed in the battle at hogwarts, could have been developed as well. The movie suggests everyone stood by while the castle was stormed, in the book the unsuspecting teachers come together to rile the efforts of the death eaters. Particularly Mogonagall. Her part in the battle really builds her as a strong and quiet force that is capable of much more than we bargain for. Quite frankly Maggie Smith is not looking so young these days and they need to hurry up and give her some awesome battle scenes before its too late. Where as I did enjoy the movie if felt a little like a rough cut and paste job. They added things which could have been left out and left out things that could have been incorporated. However at the end of the day I find it terribly despressing that any Harry Potter film, nay any film in general could have been out done at the theaters by G-Force. It is a sad day for the cinematic world indeed. Perhaps this is proof that they may have undercut the 6th book just a bit too much since people are preferring to go see crime fighting hamsters instead of re-watching HP6. I think the wait and anticipation was too long so since the audience was left feeling confused and scrambling to make sense of this new version of the 6th book instead of walking out feeling excited and energized it made for a greater feeling of let down. I am willing to rewatch it now that I know what to expect and hope to approach it with a new appreciation for what it is and not for what it’s not. All in all it was a good movie but you really do have the separate movie from book here. I wont lie that I wish they had done just a little more.

    • Bartleby July 27, 2009 at 8:14 am #

      G-Force succeeding at the box office would be a travesty if it weren’t for the fact that already this summer Transformers 2 was a mega-hit, last fall Beverly Hills Chihuaha struck gold, and that over the now long vanished years the following movies blew up the box-office: The Waterboy, Armageddon, Scary Movie, Saw I-Whatever….

      For every person who wants to see something genuinely worthy of their 8 bucks, there are those who just want to see Tracey Morgan as a hamster screaming “This is animal cruelty…AND I LOVE IT!!”

      Who knows…maybe it’s good. Ha! Of course the last time I ripped into a movie for being a shamless cash-in with talking animals, it was Babe: Pig in the City and I had to eat my words big time.

  4. raelynn153 July 27, 2009 at 7:55 am #

    Also young Tom Riddle was the scariest thing Ive seen since village of the damned! By far the creepiest child I have ever seen. If my son looks like that I will have to do away with him quite early Im afraid.

  5. raelynn153 July 27, 2009 at 7:56 am #

    PS: Someone needs to get Dubledore out of the IHOP and on to the south beach diet!

    • Bartleby July 27, 2009 at 7:59 am #

      We all have our weaknesses…Richard Harris had the hooch…Gambon has the ho-hos..

  6. Bartleby July 27, 2009 at 8:09 am #

    What I really loved about the movie was the way in which it really humanized the small moments. I really liked both of the two you mentioned raelynn, with that odd hunt through the field at night and the ginny/harry moment. They were different than the book, and perhaps it is helpful I haven’t read it recently–not since 2005–but I liked that they did differ and found ways to convey similar emotions as the book in different ways. In the novel, it’s mostly Harry dreaming of passionately making out with Ginny that gives their relationship build-up. To do it here with a rather chaste and secret kiss was better I think.

    Strangely, I forgot to mention my favorite scene from the film. It’s another example of taking something small and doing wonders with it. Its a throwaway bit in the book, but I’m talking about the impromptu funeral for Hagrid’s spider pal, Aragog. There was something sublimely beautiful about that whole scene; the singing of that pseudo-hymn, and the tie-in to earlier in the series. The magical and mysterious pieces of Harry’s youth are disappearing and vanishing as he grows up. Aragog was one a fearsome part of the fantastical architecture of Hogwarts, and now all these years later he’s just a decaying husk sitting on the outskirts of the campus.

    I think thats what I love about the movie. It adds something the book didn’t have: melancholy and poignancy.

    • raelynn153 July 27, 2009 at 9:43 am #

      And the hilariousness of profressor slughorn breaking off an langerhorn lol

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