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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Note: This review pertains to the original theatrical release. My updated review of the DVD appears at the bottom.

We're in the middle of what I've been calling the Bummer Summer, given that title because most of the "big" movies I was so eagerly anticipating have disappointed me. (Yeah, I'm looking at you Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Terminator Salvation, Angels & Demons, and Year One). So like a breath of fresh air after a day being trapped in an office cubicle, along comes Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In a summer that's been heavy on bombast, here's one that actually has less action and mayhem than its predecessors, one that takes the time to do such novel things as develop story and character and explore genuine mystery. I don't believe in magic, but I do believe in "movie magic," and this sixth installment has it.

The story, of course, has been carrying on for a while. This time, we pick up with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) as they return to Hogwarts School of Magic for another year. It quickly becomes clear that the long-anticipated return of the evil Voldemort is imminent: the loutish Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is acting very suspiciously, and headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) has asked Harry to sidle up to the newest professor, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). This last bit of business is particularly intriguing, as Slughorn allegedly has a secret that somehow ties him to Voldemort, which is exactly what young Potter is assigned to ferret out.

I don't want to spend too much time rehashing the plot. Many of you already know it. Instead, I'd rather talk about what makes this series so special and why Half-Blood Prince may just be my favorite part yet. The beauty of the thing is that, over the course of six films, we've come to really know the characters. When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was released in 2001, it was a cute little fantasy about a boy wizard. Since then, events have darkened dramatically, and we've come to see depth in Harry, Ron, and Hermione. They have become more than just spunky kids; they have grown before our eyes into smart, curious, honorable teenagers.

Now that they've reached adolescence, big things are in store, and the movie really makes that palpable. Most threatening to them is love. Harry wants to get close to Ginny Weasley, while Ron wants to express his feelings to Hermione, who doesn't realize she reciprocates them until Lavendar Brown (the scene-stealing Jessie Cave) swoops in to divert his attentions.

Oh yeah, there's the life-and-death stuff too. If the last few Harry Potter adventures have shown us a young man coming to accept his duty in the world, Half-Blood Prince shows us one who is embracing it. You can see this most clearly in the scenes between Harry and Dumbledore. In the final (fantastic) half-hour, the headmaster issues a series of dire warnings to his young charge - warnings that the younger, less mature Harry would have questioned. Now he does as he's told, and we can sense the evolution of his understanding of the reasons why certain difficult choices must be made. I find this kind of thing utterly compelling. The whole appeal of J.K. Rowling's novels (as well as the films adapted from them) is to show how the innocence of youth gives way to the complexities and complications of adulthood. As the movie franchise makes its sprint toward the finish line, that concept is coming into increasingly clearer focus.

Credit the cast with really selling the material. From entry to entry, Daniel Radcliffe has become a more solid, nuanced actor, as have Watson and Grint. They all have a way of making us care about the characters so that we want to follow them to the end. Let's face it - six movies in eight years is a lot, especially considering that so many franchises burn themselves out after only two or three sequels. The enduring appeal of this one is that everything gets a little better and a little deeper each time.

There's lots of other good stuff here too. One can never ignore the presence of Alan Rickman as Snape, or Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, or Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall. Or, for that matter, Michael Gambon as Dumbledore; he really shines in this chapter. The special effects are, as always, amazing. Everything about the picture looks great.

My favorite thing about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, however, would have to be the sense of mystery it conveys. The focus, as I said, isn't action, it's the putting together of pieces. We all know Harry will at long last confront Voldemort in the finale (which is apparently going to be divided up into two separate sections). The movie finds him mentally gearing up for that battle, finally grasping the kind of evil he will be up against and the effect that evil can have on those in its spell. It's a remarkable theme, especially for something that falls under the category of "family entertainment." But then again, the best family fare has always been smart and not condescending. Half-Blood Prince is both of those things, as well as very emotionally satisfying.

( 1/2 out of four)

DVD Features:

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince hits DVD and Blu-Ray on December 8. A digital copy of the film is included on the disc.

You can purchase the film alone, or a special 2-disc edition that, like previous Potter DVDs, is loaded with extras. To start, there is a handful of deleted scenes. Because the novels are so large, it's impossible for any movie version to keep in everything that happened in the book. These additional scenes will be required viewing for purists who want to see more of Rowling's work dramatized. It appears that these moments were cut due to time issues.

"J.K. Rowling - A Year in the Life" is a pleasingly lengthy look at the author and how she created/developed her beloved series, with emphasis given to the final installment. I've felt that Rowling was under-represented in some of the previous DVDs, so it's wonderful to see her represented here.

"Close Up with the Cast of Harry Potter" finds various cast members each checking out a different production department (makeup, editing, props, etc.) to find out how they contribute to the overall Potter magic. This is a great primer for young viewers who may be interested in learning more about how movies come together.

"What's On Your Mind?" is a "lightning round Q&A" with cast and crew members. You won't necessarily find a lot of depth here, as the questions are designed to be answered quickly and easily, but it's still fun to hear everyone talk about a series that has meant so much to them.

In "One Minute Drills," the cast members are asked to describe their characters' arcs over the six films - in no more than a minute.

If you're planning to visit Universal Orlando Resort, be sure to check out the sneak peak at "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter," their upcoming attraction. This is certain to be wildly popular when it opens, as the creators have gone to great lengths to make visitors feel like they've entered this fictitious universe.

Finally, there's some teaser footage from the upcoming Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Honestly, it's not as much footage as you'd like, but then again, the filmmakers can't give away too much too soon. Hardcore fans will doubtlessly devour any little scrap they can get.

I definitely recommend the 2-disc Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince DVD. The movie is, of course, fantastic, and the bonus features are plentiful.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is rated PG for scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality. The running time is 2 hours and 32 minutes.

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