Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (PG) ***

 

The magic's back, without all the trickery.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Alan Rickman and Emma Watson are shown in Warner Bros. Pictures fantasy adventure, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."
 

By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

''You need a shave, my friend,'' wise old Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) tells his most-gifted pupil Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) in the sixth, talkiest and most engaging installment in the boy wizard's ongoing adventures.

Harry and his pals Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are well on their way to young adulthood. Grint, in particular, seems to have grown a foot since the previous movie, and a considerable part of the appeal of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince comes from director David Yates' willingness to downplay all the stuff regarding destinies, curses, ancient secrets and magic duels in favor of his three central characters and their irrepressible struggles with roiling hormones.

Of course, since these kids happen to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, all adolescent crushes and romances will be leavened by wands and potions. Yates, having obviously grown comfortable with his lead actors after directing them in Order of the Phoenix, nudges real performances from them. Radcliffe has never been this loose and charismatic. Grint comes into his own as more than just comic relief, and Watson gives teenage heartache the depth and universality that was once the speciality of Molly Ringwald.

The emphasis on character is critical now that the series is heading into the home stretch, and, with two movies left to go (both spun from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling's finale), the action is presumably about to ramp up. Screenwriter Steve Kloves, returning to the series after taking a breather from the previous film, has compressed Rowling's 652-page novel into 2 ½ hours. Fans of the books will undoubtedly complain about some excisions, most notably the film's climactic showdown between good and evil, which apparently has been whittled down from a major set piece in the novel to only a couple of minutes' worth of screen time.

Overall, though, the story remains the same. The evil Death Eaters aggressively attack the world of Muggles; Harry is assigned by Dumbledore to befriend the school's new professor (a terrific Jim Broadbent) and get him to share a secret memory from his past; the is-he-or-isn't-he-evil Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) finally reveals which team he's really playing for, and Harry's archnemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) becomes a tortured, quasi-tragic figure as he delves further into the dark side of magic.

The Half-Blood Prince has plenty of instances of sheer wonder, such as the kids' visit to a magic-trick shop that sells all kinds of tantalizing gadgets or a sequence set in a dark cavern in which Dumbledore goes all Gandalf on the hordes of Gollum-esque creatures that attack him and Harry. For the first time in the series, we get a Quidditch game that bears true relevance to the plot.

There is also Helena Bonham Carter's performance as the Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange, a wonderful bit of deliriously unhinged acting that serves as a special effect of a sort -- and makes you hope the character has an even larger part in the remaining installments.

Mostly, though, Half-Blood Prince downplays the visual trickery and even the series' famous action: A mid-film attack by the Death Eaters on our heroes in a field of wheat seems to have been thrown in only to remind the audience they're watching a fantasy instead of High School Confidential.

That observation is meant as praise, not scorn. The Harry Potter films will be regarded as one of the most remarkable series in film history, and Half-Blood Prince is the franchise's Empire Strikes Back -- the episode in which the pace slows down a bit, the characters deepen and mature, the good guys take a big hit, and all hell is gearing up to break loose.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Jim Broadbent, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Felton, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, David Thewlis.

Director: David Yates.

Screenwriter: Steve Kloves. Based on the novel by J.K. Rowling.

Producers: David Heyman, David Barron.

A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 153 minutes. Brief violence, frightening imagery.

Speak Up!