As Pottermania began some years ago, I recall being amazed at how similar it all seemed to Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic, which predates J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel by about five years. In it, boy wizard Tim Hunter, equipped with broken glasses and an owl, is prophesied to be an immensely powerful wizard. The forces of good and evil each seek to manipulate his upbringing in an effort to claim him for their own. For Gaiman fans, it was tempting to cry plagiarism. But subtract the glasses, and substitute the owl for a cute droid or two, and you could just as well be describing Luke Skywalker.
The generation that grew up with the Harry Potter books will just as surely sit rapt through the movies as they will quibble about the compromises made in their adaptation. Beware what follows is from the perspective of an older non-fan, who’s read the first book and seen the movies, but doesn’t hold them deep in the heart as the Harry Potter generation does.
David Yates’ Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince is very, very long, and demands that the audience has retained an awful lot of lore from the previous movies (but again, the counterargument stands: you can say the same about Star Wars and Star Trek). I found the trailer totally incomprehensible, and the movie at times befuddling. I longed for a less novelistic and more movie-like narrative.
When a MacGuffin is finally introduced late in the movie, it adds a much-needed dramatic spark to drive the story, giving Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) a clear quest. But for those of us without a Potter wiki stored in our brains, what they seek — a Horcrux — is not clearly explained, despite reams of exposition from Dumbledore, plus a recap from Harry and Hermione (Emma Watson) at the end. Apparently there is more than one, two have already been found, and a third turned out to be counterfeit?
It must have been quite a gamble to cast such a large troupe of child actors, trusting that they would grow into the acting profession over the course of several years. I wouldn’t say any of the child actors are bad, but they’re all unsurprisingly outclassed by the large complement of veteran British actors.
Timothy Spall and Helena Bonham Carter both play baddies with relish, but I can’t say I recall much about who they are and what motivates them. Nor whether returning characters played by Emma Thompson, Gary Oldman, and David Tennant are still good and/or evil, alive and/or dead. Didn’t Oldman appear in a fireplace in one of the previous movies? I guess he’s feeling better now. I can’t keep this stuff straight.
Alan Rickman is superb as always, every line reading a delicious mixture of humor and menace. As with Ian McShane in anything, Rickman is doing Shakespeare while everyone else is in a soap opera. His character Snape turns out to be the titular Prince, which I suppose raises two questions for the next installment: was his dangerously annotated potions textbook deliberately left to fall into Harry’s hands? And: what’s the significance of the nickname? He appears to be some kind of double-agent.
Recurring villain Draco (Tom Felton) remains a wet noodle. Every movie sets him up as Harry’s nemesis at school, as well as cosmically fated for evil as Harry is for good. But he always winds up spanked and running away crying like a baby. It’s unclear to me if we’re supposed to consider him a real threat, but perhaps I’m overthinking things, and it is simply childish wish fulfillment that the school bully always get his embarrassing comeuppance.
Most of the rest of the movie is concerned with the teens’ romantic lives. I don’t happen to recall Ginny (Bonnie Wright) being a significant character in the previous movies, so the mutual infatuation between her and Harry seemed to have developed offscreen between movies.
But what has always puzzled me the most about this whole epic is Harry himself. What makes him so special? He’s not necessarily the most clever (Hermione of course), brave, or powerful. From what I recall from the backstory, his biggest claim to fame is that he survived an attack by the Dark Lord Voldemort. But the world’s most powerful wizard Dumbledore apparently trusts Harry more than anyone else. Surely there’s any number of more experienced wizards he could have brought along with him to look for the Horcrux; why did he specifically need Harry?