Harry is better than ever, a triumph of visual wonder and emotional storytelling. Only Muggles, who wouldn't know Slytherin from Gryffindor, will dismiss it as kid stuff for the multitudes who drank the Kool-Aid of J.K. Rowling's seven books. The rap on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth of Rowling's books to be filmed (number seven will be two movies), is that it's an interim tease, all buildup and no release. Like that's bad. Like character and motivation have no place after Michael Bay banished them in Transformers 2.
David Yates, who directed Order of the Phoenix in 2007 and will steer the Potter films to the finish line, energizes the quiet strengths in the Steve Kloves script. A major character dies. And a minor one — the half-blood prince who's been scheming behind the scenes — rises to the fore. Romance? Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) pines for Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), and Hermione (Emma Watson) watches in jealous disgust as Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), Harry's BFF and Ginny's brother, imbibes a love potion that makes him the sex slave of anyone he encounters. I exaggerated the kinky part — the movie is rated PG, though Grint is a comic delight in hormonal transport.
What makes Half-Blood Prince top-tier is the descent of darkness on the lives of these characters. The unseen Lord Voldemort cooks up fresh hell by planning to have Harry's archrival, the blond, bullying Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), kill wise old Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). And then there's slithery Severus Snape (the great Alan Rickman) making a deal to protect Draco. I'll never tell why, except to say that it's a pleasure to watch the mesmerizing Felton take the role to the next level, discovering a vulnerable humanity in Draco. And Rickman is a dynamo, lacing the Severus sneer with glimmers of conscience and moral doubt.
All the actors excel at pulling us into the film's mysteries. Radcliffe's growing maturity as Harry gives the role a touching gravity. His scenes with Gambon, superb as Dumbledore, exude ferocity and emotion, notably when they seek a Horcrux, where part of the Dark Lord's soul resides, on a lake teeming with undead corpses. It's scary, resonant magic, poetically shot by Bruno Delbonnel. The shadows, and the dangers lurking within, have always drawn me deepest into Potter World. Newcomers shouldn't worry about playing catch-up. Getting lost in the hypnotic Half-Blood Prince is what gives the movie its haunting power.