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Rated 3.83 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Puppy Love Plus a Little Magic
by John P. McCarthy

When last we saw the Chosen Wizard in 2007's enervating Order of the Phoenix, he stood on the cusp of manhood as an awkwardly hormonal adolescent. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, he finally looks comfortable in his own skin, having grown into a confident young man who has abandoned all childish things, except for those sneakers.

Overall, there's still the nagging sensation that the franchise is biding its time until the final showdown between Mr. Potter and Lord Voldemort, whether or not that conforms to J.K. Rowling's pace in print. But putting the focus on character growth helps offset this sixth installment's narrative sluggishness. The story is advanced, just not as far as you want or expect given its substantial running time. 

On the plus side of the ledger along with absorbing character development, the special effects are less showy (yet sufficiently dazzling) and the balance between humor and peril nicely calibrated. Rowling's combination of humorous relationship tension and fantastical dread, nicely accentuated by director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves, is Shakespearean, echoing parts of Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is older and bolder where girls are concerned, though when it comes to thwarting black magic he's willing but tentative. He's certainly up against it. Death Eaters are on the ascendant outside Hogwarts, making casualties of London's Millennium Bridge and the Muggle pedestrians traversing it in a terrific early scene. Their handiwork outside the Weasley home later in the movie is also thrillingly rendered.

With Draco Malfoy planning to commit a dastardly deed once the new school year begins, and Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) having pledged to watch his back, his Hogwarts' peers are experiencing the throes of first love, or as Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) aptly describes it "love's sting." Everywhere you look student wizards are primed to disclose and act on their amorous feelings. Hermione (Emma Watson) admits to having a serious crush on Ron (Rupert Grint), and Harry comes clean about the place Ron's sister Ginny Weasley holds in his fast-beating heart. This dynamic provides significant levity.

Meantime, Dumbledore enlists Harry to discover a secret tightly held by the new Potions Master, Professor Horace Slughorn. Jim Broadbent proves to be another excellent cast addition, carrying significant stretches of the movie and making exclamations like "Merlin's beard!" sound perfectly natural. Slughorn's secret triggers flashbacks to Lord Voldemort's time at Hogwarts, where he arrived as a gifted if malevolent orphan who wouldn't look out of place in The Omen or The Boys from Brazil.

The mystery itself involves horcruxes, vessels in which parts of someone's fragmented soul can be hidden. Voldermort has apparently concealed seven pieces of his inside horcruxes, scattering them to ensure he rises again. At a crucial point when Dumbledore and Harry have located one in an eerie seaside cave, the headmaster goes into Moses mode to keep horrific apparitions at bay. After this suspenseful scene, unfortunately, the rest of the movie feels anticlimactic -- rushed and padded at the same time -- even when the identity of the Half-Blood prince is revealed and an agent of good dispatched.

The production design, enhanced by outstanding cinematography, is cleaner and much less faux-fusty than in the previous movies. The special effects appear fully integrated into the plot rather than pumped-up to create a gaudy, neo-Victorian atmosphere. Certain moviegoers will miss the fancy creatures and more action-oriented magic. They're the ones who won't appreciate that the movie's Quidditch match is mercifully short. Its purpose is to fill out Ron's character. He excels at goalkeeper and has a chance to preen, thus revealing Hermione's heart and making her a more rounded figure as well.

The decision has been made to split Rowling's final Harry Potter book into two movies and Yates has signed-on to direct both. Let's hope he's even more successful at striking a balance between character and spectacle. This popular saga deserves the best possible conclusion.

(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated "PG" for scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality.)

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