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‘Half-Blood Prince’ is strong warm-up for finale

The latest Potter installment goes out of its way to balance its own dark doings with more character and atmosphere than we’ve seen in the last few movies.
/ Source: contributor

Call it the calm before the storm, but “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” goes out of its way to balance its own dark doings — to say nothing of the dire events to come in the two upcoming movies based on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” — with more character and atmosphere than we’ve seen in the last few movies.

If you’ve been missing Quidditch matches, love triangles, hanging out in the Gryffindor common room and general Hogwarts-iness, you’ll have a great time with this latest sequel.

As the big showdown with Voldemort draws nearer, headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) asks for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) to assist him in convincing Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) into coming back to teach at Hogwarts. Slughorn is one of the magic world’s great name-droppers, and Dumbledore knows he won’t be able to resist having the legendary Harry as a student.

It turns out one of Slughorn’s previous acolytes was Tom Riddle (Frank Dillane) — who would go on to become the evil Voldemort — and it’s up to Harry to find out just what bit of knowledge of dark magic Slughorn passed along to the student who would go on to kill Harry’s parents. (We also meet the 11-year-old Riddle in a flashback, when Dumbledore comes to recruit him for Hogwarts; the child is played by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, nephew of Ralph Fiennes, who plays the grown-up baddie.)

Meanwhile, the dark forces are getting up to all kinds of shenanigans, from Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) attacking the Weasley household on Christmas to whatever it is that Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is doing with a mysterious cabinet in the Room of Requirement.

But while “Half-Blood Prince” contains some of the series’ most scary images to date — including a young girl being thrashed about by an invisible force in a snowstorm — it balances things out with subplots about Ron (Rupert Grint) discovering his Quidditch prowess and Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ginny (Bonnie Wright) coming to terms with their true feelings about Ron and Harry, respectively. The hilarious Evanna Lynch steals a handful of scenes as Luna Lovegood, while nobody makes an innocuous sentence sound as nefarious and packed with multiple meanings as Alan Rickman’s witheringly wonderful Professor Snape.

I’m not sure that I’m buying into the whole “best ‘Potter’ ever” hype from the early reviews — for one thing, the film shares the book’s main flaw in that it’s very much a chapter in the saga and not a free-standing story of its own. We’re left hanging at the end and waiting for the big finale that’s still a year off.

And while not everything in the book can ever make it to the screen, the whole notion of the “Half-Blood Prince” is barely addressed in the film. Harry sees the name in an old potion textbook that’s filled with invaluable marginalia, Hermione says she can find no record of the nickname in the library, and that’s all we get until the Prince’s identity is swiftly and brusquely revealed towards the end.

No flashbacks, no explanations, no insight as to why the “Half-Blood” designation matters. You’ll have to go back to J.K. Rowling’s novel if you want the details. It’s as though screenwriter Steve Kloves and director David Yates knew they had to include it since it was part of the book’s title, but then gave it the tiniest amount of screen time possible.

In any event, the “Harry Potter” series continues to be one of the most satisfying and entertaining movie franchises around. Even if this latest entry doesn’t have all the intensity or real-world political repercussions of “Order of the Phoenix,” it’s a fun palate-cleanser as we all await what promises to be a bang-up climax.

Follow Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at .