After six films in nine years, the Harry Potter series is getting better, which is not the way these things are supposed to work. Why has this lengthy film series done what perhaps no other has: build in quality rather than suffer from diminishing returns?
There are a lot of reasons. The most obvious is the Potter films are rooted in a preexisting narrative supplied by author J.K. Rowling; rather than invent more story than necessary to capitalize on a successful model, the story already is shaped. Similarly, as one long coming-of-age tale, Rowling's work is designed to pick up more depth and characterization as her young characters grow into adults.
But the series also has found cinematic footing after an uncertain early stretch: Nondescript Hollywood helmer Chris Columbus did workmanlike but uninspired adaptations with the first two films; British vet Mike Newell presided over a series of set pieces in the underwhelming fourth installment. Sandwiched between these directorial guardians was the brilliant Alfonso Cuaron, who turned 2004's Prisoner of Azkaban into real cinema with sun-dappled outdoor scenes and an organic sense of life.
Cuaron's installment is still the most visually impressive Potter entry, but it also stands apart from the series. With television-schooled Brit David Yates, who came aboard for 2007's Order of the Phoenix, returning for the new Half-Blood Prince, and presiding over the series' two-part finale, the Potter series seems to have finally found its man. Yates isn't intimidated by the material but also doesn't impose a personal style on it. He tells a beloved story — well.
For this non-fanatic, however, the key may be the experiential heft the viewer now brings to the film: not just the history of having seen these characters develop over the course of six long films (15 hours total screen time), but the experience of watching these particular actors — Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), and especially Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), whose post-Potter career most intrigues — grow up in these roles.
The Half-Blood Prince is the most character- and story-driven entry yet. There are fewer action/effects set pieces, though the ones here — Harry and emerging love interest Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) battling back-to-back in a swampy field, Harry and mentor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) fending off the watery dead — are more genuinely creepy and danger-laden than before. But the real drama comes from the gathering story of Harry's "chosen" confrontation with "dark lord" Voldemort and his minions and the concomitant emotional upheaval of teendom, as the trio of old friends negotiate new romantic longings that are no less perilous.
As with all the Potter films, the young stars are ably assisted by a vibrant mini-universe of veteran British actors, with Alan Rickman's Professor Snape stepping to the fore as double agent in the battle of good and evil whose true allegiances are a mystery. New to the cast this time is always-great Mike Leigh vet Jim Broadbent (Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake) as Horace Slughorn, a returning professor at Harry's Hogwart's School with a crucial secret.
But the young stars — even more than the still-fun hocus-pocus — are the real show. Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince is not just an excellent fantasy film. It's a terrific high school movie. That Harry's life-and-death confrontation with true evil seems no more or less important than Hermione's conflicted attraction to a too-oblivious Ron is a reason why Half-Blood Prince is likely the most full-blooded blockbuster we'll see this summer.