Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, November 21, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

By the time “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” went before cameras, the producers had shit figured out. While David Yates was editing the previous film, he was talked into making the next one. All the key players were pinned down, even if Emma Watson was beginning to express some misgivings about her most famous role. By 2008, it would’ve taken an act of god to prevent the release of the next Harry Potter movie. Naturally, it became another massive hit, breaking several records and becoming the second highest grossing film of the year. As the wizarding saga approached its end, the public’s Potter fever showed no sign of slowing.

If each of J.K. Rowling’s stories can be said to have a theme, it seems “The Half-Blood Prince” is about secrets and the cost of keeping them. Early on, Severus Snape entrusts Draco Malfoy to carry out a secret order. Malfoy carries out this mission along the film’s sidelines. Similarly, Dumbledore later gives Harry the responsibility of his own covert mission. Both mentors, we discover later, have secrets of their own. Even the quieter, more character oriented moment revolve around people hiding things from each others. As the Hogwarts kids creep closer to adulthood, they learn that the grown-up world is full of hidden identities and secluded truths.

This doesn’t terribly concern Harry Potter. Mostly, the sixteen year old boy is horny. The film begins with him oogling a shapely waitress and successfully getting her attention. Dumbledore then cock-blocks the poor wizard, zapping him away to another location. Romance is a pressing concern throughout the film, as Harry grows closer to Ron’s little sister, Ginny. That particular love story is a bit of a surprise. Previously, it was suggested that Ginny’s feelings for Harry were little more then a precocious crush. Harry returning her feelings is surprising. Then again, considering how desperate Harry is for some action, maybe any snogging would be welcomed. Since the franchise is still ostensibly kid focused, it’s refreshing to see a somewhat honest approach to teenage hormones.

Truthfully, I find the romantic shenanigans to be more interesting then the constant foreshadowing of the ever-approaching wizard war. Both Harry and Ron receive more female attention then either is used too. After winning a big Quiddatch game, a girl starts to bathe Ron in affection. Which he mostly accepts to make Hermione jealous. She counters by going to a school dance with some jock. Though the two friends are clearly romantically attracted to each other, they’re still testing the boundaries of this relationship. This brings some growing pains of its own, which Hermione expresses by throwing birds at Ron. Eventually, they admit they like each other, in a really cute way. Harry has some romantic entanglements too, when a love potion intended for him winds up with Ron instead. Moments of light, romantic comedy add some much needed levity to what would otherwise be a gloomy film.

“The Half-Blood Prince” doesn’t have the big action set pieces of the previous films. There’s no hippogriff riding, dragon fights, or elaborate wizard duels. In truth, most of the big effects sequences take place in the first act. The film opens with some Death Eaters collapsing a bridge in London, one of the few times we see the wizarding world and the muggle world interact. (Disappointingly, the implications of this terrorist attack are never expanded on.) Later, the same gang of evil wizards burn down the Weasley’s shanty, leading to a brief chase through a corn field. The film’s climax is more emotional then anything else, though David Yates did throw some explosions in just for the hell of it.

With David Yates becoming the captain of Harry Potter Land, leading the entire second half of the franchise, stale serialization has seeped into the series. These last few movies are the ones that blend together the most in my mind. “The Half Blood Prince,” too often, feels like an extended act in foreshadowing, the belabored prologue to the final films. Lots of plot points are introduced with a big shrug. The mystery of the Half-Blood Prince’s identity gets the title position but ultimately plays a minuscule role.  When the truth is revealed, it’s done as an afterthought. There’s an extended sequence devoted to drinking burning black water, which seems unnecessary. “The Half-Blood Prince’s” main purpose is to set up the Horcruxes, the plot devices that will allow Harry to defeat Voldemort. When a significant ring drops on-screen, the film never bothers to explain what exactly it is to the Potter illiterate folks in the audience.

“The Half-Blood Prince” is so devoted to setting up the last film that its entire run time is just build-up to one pivotal moment, which will make everything that follows possible: The death of Dumbledore. The moment isn’t surprising, as the act had been whispered about all throughout the film. When the killing blow comes, it’s not a shock. Instead, the death happens resignedly. Dumbledore himself is fine with it, his demise obviously planned as part of his grand scheme. Yates does everything possible to add weight and importance to the moment. There’s slow motion, sweeping music, and many anguished screams. And I’m sure Dumbledore’s death was a huge tear-jerker for Potter devotees but it’s hard for me to get upset when over two hours of movie predicted it.

Like every previous “Potter” film, “Half-Blood Prince” has a loaded supporting cast. The showiest new addition is James Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, easily the dumbest name J.K. Rowling has ever conceived. But Broadbent is fine in the part, bringing some eccentric energy. Helena Bonham Carter is given a larger role, allowed to shriek and ham it up more. Michael Gambon is overly grim, further hinting at his character’s inevitable demise. Tom Felton and Bonnie Wright get meatier roles, even if the former mostly just gives magical objects serious looks. As always, the central trio do good work. Radcliffe and Grint’s small comedic touches are much welcomed.

The “Harry Potter” franchise has become so invested in its own mythology that it plays mostly to the hardcore fans, leaving casual dabblers in the dark. This represents a lack of balance in the final film. For example, Voldemort is constantly discussed but barely appears. Yates’ direction remains gloomy and heavy. Maybe this is why I like the lighter stuff in the first half – the romantic shenanigans, the banter between the main cast – way more then the leaden second half?  “Half-Blood Prince” does provide its pleasures even if my memories of it are quickly leaving my mind. [7/10]

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