Summer Movie A-Go-Go: ‘Harry Potter VI’
The short version: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is quite possibly the second-best film in the series so far (for my money 3-4 rank highest, but you have to note they were also the first two to break out of the Chris Columbus kids movie vibe, and the last two that could be digested easily as movies on their own, rather than build-ups to the finale).
The long(er) version: Director David Yates’ previous effort, Order of the Phoenix, by and large felt unsure what to focus on (the book has a bit of that feeling, too – after the “Voldemort is back!” proclamation that ends Goblet of Fire, too much of Phoenix is devoted to…well, not the fallout from Voldemort’s return), and so there’s not a lot about the fifth installment that’s really memorable outside of the final battle scene.
That’s not really the case here.
While Half-Blood Prince keeps the book’s episodic feel, Yates seems to have learned a lot of lessons from Phoenix, particularly developing the broader feeling a subplot instead of hurriedly checking off its bullet points (example: Ron’s outing as a Quiddich star, which doesn’t take up much of the film but certainly delivers the meat of it succinctly and entertainingly).
And despite all the reviews pointing out how “dark” this film is – like the last two were buckets of sunshine – it’s also the most effortlessly funny of them. The younger actors are still a little iffy, but (Rupert Grint in particular) have figured out how to be deadpan.* Which is pretty important, considering a lot of the character work in the book is in the way the kids respond to each other –meaning, often quite sarcastically (though “gleefully stoned confidence” seems to be Daniel Radcliffe’s forte, if his luck-potion performance is any indication).
It doesn’t hurt that Half-Blood Prince’s subplots are mostly focused on the budding romances between the kids, which can more effectively be mined for laughs than any of the previous material** (again, Radcliffe’s stupidly confident grin as he spots a girl looking at him works to his advantage).
If the movie is hobbled by anything, it’s that despite the book’s importance as the penultimate chapter, the final lead-in to the “big stuff,” as a movie it’s only the build-up to a little more build-up before the movie series finale in Deathly Hallows Part II. Meaning its final moments – SPOILER OF BOOK THAT WAS PUBLISHED YEARS AGO AND DISCUSSED AT LENGTH BACK THEN!!! – including Snape’s apparent betrayal*** and Dumbledore’s death**** don’t carry quite the bombshell qualities that they would have if Deathly Hallows had been kept to a single film.
So I’ll give this one 3.5 Crystal Skulls:
Worth seeing in theaters, but ultimately just a very satisfying stop on the road to the final destination, which may keep some butts out of the seats.
*Other notes on the kids – I absolutely love the fact that side-characters like Neville and Luna have become such favorites. If you are a Neville-phile (?), expect to be disappointed (though I suspect his one scene is actually a bit of a joke on the fact that they simply couldn’t find a place to fit him in this time around), but for you Luna-tics (ha!), she gets a few nice little moments of quiet nuttiness.
**While I don’t think Bonnie Wright, as Ginny, has quite mastered effective line-delivery yet, she does good “determined face.” I think Yates has figured out how to utilize that, by having her silently, resolutely charge after Harry into danger as an effective symbol of her affection for him. (Also, I think it’s sort of cute that she, like the other Weasleys, is a little taller than Harry.)
***And god, does Alan Rickman knock it out of the park again. He gives a lot of subtlety to a performance that’s light on screen time, sending clear “There is more going on here than you are seeing” messages to the slower viewers with a slight tilt of the eyebrow (or, I guess more telling for the character, the lack of an eyebrow tilt).
However…I am beginning…to…suspect…that Rickman…has some kind…of siiiide bet…to see…how long he can….make the…pauses…in his phrasing before someone…tells him…to pick up…the pace.
****Here’s where a PG-13 rating is a bit of a bummer: Dumbledore’s fall out the window, to really sell the death, should have been a visceral thing, a horrible, speedy crash into the ground. But there are still younger folks watching, so we get the sad dramatic slo-mo version instead.