- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The best way to think about “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is not as the sixth film in the franchise but, rather, the first film in a new trilogy. The first five chapters were all prologue to what happens in this picture and its sequels, the two films Warner Bros. is making out of the seventh and final novel in the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”

With that in mind, some of the faults of “The Half-Blood Prince” — its lack of a conclusion, for example, or its cursory treatment of important matters that obviously will take on greater prominence in later installments — are more excusable. This isn’t a bad film; it just feels a little incomplete.

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” picks up where its predecessor, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” left off: The godfather of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has been killed, and the return of the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is accepted by all. Voldemort’s minions, the Death Eaters (led by Helena Bonham Carter’s delightfully wicked Bellatrix Lestrange), are hounding the forces of good, headed by Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon).

In addition to struggling with evil personified, Harry’s also struggling to maintain his friendships with Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) while pursuing Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) romantically. Oh, and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) might be playing for either the good guys or the bad guys or both.

Got all that?

“The Half-Blood Prince” may be the first installment in a new trilogy, but it’s not a movie one jumps into without having seen the previous five films in the series, or at least the previous two, after it took a darker turn. There’s little in the way of explanation for novices, and those who have seen each of the prior films only once and never bothered with the novels might find themselves at a loss every once in a while.

As the Harry Potter movies have ventured into darker, more mature territory, the series has greatly improved in one regard: The stories feel more epic, the tension more real. “The Half-Blood Prince” continues that trend. But the series also has weakened a bit, as the filmmakers have tried to cram school-age mischief and lovelorn follies amidst tumultuous battles between good and evil. These excursions into the personal lives of Harry, Hermione, Ron and Ginny all feel a little tacked on.

As with its predecessors, the greatest strength of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is the absolute murderer’s row of British character actors who populate the wizarding ranks: Jim Broadbent (playing potions professor Prof. Horace Slughorn) joins Mr. Rickman, Mr. Gambon and Miss Bonham Carter, along with Warwick Davis, Maggie Smith and David Thewlis. These fantastic actors lend just enough gravitas to the project to keep it from devolving into silliness.

★★★

TITLE: “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”

RATING: PG (scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality)

CREDITS: Directed by David Yates, written by Steve Kloves

RUNNING TIME: 153 minutes

WEB SITE: harrypotter.warnerbros.com/