Bewitched, bewildered and hot and botheredBy Dan Kois
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Harry Potter: chick magnet?
"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" opens with the boy wizard, now a hunky young man, hurriedly checking his breath after securing a date with a pretty Muggle waitress. And that's just the beginning of the sixth film in the series based on J.K. Rowling's novels of a wizard's magical education. They should have called it "Harry Potter and the Teenagers in Heat": Hermione fancies Ron! Ron can't keep his hands off Lavender Brown! Harry has a crush on Ron's sister Ginny! Love potions, common-room snogging, adolescent heartbreak; such is the film's infatuation with teenage coupledom that even ancient confirmed bachelor Dumbledore, a man with, you'd think, more crucial things on his mind, asks after Harry's romantic prospects.
It's hard to blame "Half-Blood Prince" screenwriter Steve Kloves or director David Yates for focusing on the romance. After all, as young-adult adventures go, the sixth book in the Harry Potter series is awfully light on the adventure, offering only one action sequence at the end of its exposition-packed 652 pages. It must have seemed a daunting challenge to adapt for an audience of casual moviegoers who don't know a quaffle from a bezoar. The film's sacrifice of Horcruxes in favor of hormones yields some comic highlights: The three leads, Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron) and Emma Watson (Hermione), give their most charming performances to date. Ron is particularly funny under the addling effects of a love potion, and Hermione is sad and sweet in a moment of romantic disillusionment, sitting at the bottom of a set of stone stairs, conjuring a flock of twittering birds to circle above her head.
All of which is to say that "Half-Blood Prince," with its romantic triangle (square? pentagon?), its Quidditch high jinks, its gorgeous production design and its bang-up final action sequence, might be the most enjoyable Harry Potter movie yet for people who don't particularly care about Harry Potter movies. Whether die-hard fans of the books will love it, though, is another story. Count me as one Potterphile who wasn't enchanted.
My problems with "Half-Blood Prince" don't feel like the kinds of quibbles that franchise fanatics often raise. I'm not upset about Hermione's hair or the excising of a minor character. While in my heart of hearts I imagine the perfect Potter adaptation as a 30-hour miniseries in which every scene in the book is reproduced verbatim, I'm willing to accept that Hollywood adaptation is the art of omission and collage. A screenwriter struggles to excise everything nonessential from a book and then assembles the rest into a shape that's pleasing to the eye.
But while previous Harry Potter movies have ranged in quality, each has managed, at least, to convey the basic spirit of the novel from which it was adapted, from 2001's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," which got across the wonder Harry feels at his new magical life, to 2007's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," which effectively outlined the growing political intrigue and rebellious fervor that drives the fifth book. Alas, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," though not without its excellent moments, doesn't tell the two stories that, at heart, the book tells. It doesn't present a compelling portrait of the birth, life and descent into inhumanity of the villain who has haunted this series from its opening scenes: Voldemort. And it doesn't make the budding romance between Harry and Ginny feel inevitable and true.
There's still plenty of magic in "Half-Blood Prince." Jim Broadbent is the latest in the long line of beloved British actors to finance a country home through an effortlessly wry performance in a Potter film. New Hogwarts professor Horace Slughorn is an avid collector of talented and famous students -- the kind of influence-peddling prof who loves to brag about the connections and accomplishments of his charges.
Director Yates brings the same energy and grit to "Half-Blood Prince" that he did to its predecessor, and though he's no Alfonso Cuarn -- the auteur whose 2004 "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" remains the on-screen pinnacle of Potter -- he shares Cuarn's delight in the creation of a believably magical world. And Yates's cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel ("Amlie"), has certainly shot the most lovely of the Harry Potter films. Hogwarts has never looked more ravishing, as a reflective Harry acknowledges at the movie's close, while the trio prepare to say goodbye to the school that has molded their characters for six eventful years.
The ways in which "Half-Blood Prince" failed to satisfy me and the ways it will surely satisfy many, many other moviegoers are a healthy reminder that adapters of beloved stories cannot, should not, target the fanatics in the audience. And it suggests we fanatics might be much happier if we stopped expecting them to.
Scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality.