In "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the sixth cinematic installment in the "Potter" series, Harry and his Hogwarts cohorts face the most fearsome adversary of all – adolescence. Or to be more exact, adolescent romance. There's no potion strong enough to cure it.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is warming up to Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright); her brother Ron (Rupert Grint) is besieged by Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), whose ardor resembles commando raids. This does not sit well with Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), who fumes with jealousy as only she can fume.
It was inevitable that the "Half-Blood Prince" would involve itself in more Muggle-ish matters as teen romance. The lead actors in these films have grown up before our eyes, and their acting has grown up, too. There's something inherently funny about the romantic predicament of Harry and Ron and Hermione. As if it wasn't bad enough having to deal with the Dark Lord and the Death Eaters and all the rest, now they have to square off against... raging hormones.
"Half-Blood Prince" is in every way superior to its immediate predecessor, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," which, like this film, was directed by David Yates. Maybe he just felt more comfortable this time around dealing with kids whose emotions were rampagingly human. He's good with the other stuff, too – the sinister elements without which "Harry Potter" wouldn't be "Harry Potter." But even here, the malevolence is more human-scaled. Hogwarts seems more solidly medieval, less like a fairy-tale aerie. The Quidditch match, a "Potter" mainstay, is more rough-and-tumble. (Can Manchester United be recruited for the series' finale?)
The relationship between Harry and Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) also gains from the age progression. Yates, and his screenwriter Steve Kloves (who has written all but the last of the "Potter" films), capture the ways in which a student-mentor relationship can evolve into a kind of odd equality. When Dumbledore says to Harry, "Once again I must ask too much of you," his words have a mournful gravitas. By drawing Harry into a final confrontation with Voldemort, he knows he risks sacrificing both himself and the boy.
It really helps in these situations to have first-rate actors. Gambon, with his voluminous, dishevelled grandeur, fills the screen even when he is filmed from afar. In his own antic way, so does Jim Broadbent, making his first appearance in the "Potter" series as Horace Slughorn, the former Hogwarts potions professor who is recruited by Harry and Dumbledore because of revelations about Voldemort's past. Slughorn is a frazzled dandy in tweeds and bow ties. His association with Voldemort, whom he knew and taught years ago as the student Tom Riddle, is both a source of pride and anguish to him. Broadbent's performance makes us aware yet again how Dickens-like J.K. Rowlings' "Harry Potter" books can be (starting with the names of the characters). The "Potter" movies in general, and "Half-Blood Prince" in particular, are at their most engaging when the characters are giddily, or grotesquely, outsized. Has there ever been a better villain in basic black than Alan Rickman's Severus Snape?
As is true of the other "Potter" films, this one, at 153 minutes, suffers from an overload of exposition, and some of it feels like marking time until the next, and final installment "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" (which will be released in two parts, in summers 2010 and 2011). But, as megamovie franchises go, "Harry Potter" is disporting itself far better than most. If you're a repeat viewer, you might want to wait to see "Half-Blood Prince" again on July 29, when it goes IMAX. Outsize characters were made for outsize screens. Grade: B+ (Rated PG for scary images, some violence, language, and mild sensuality.)