Thursday, July 16, 2009

Giddy Hogwarts: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

How does one evaluate a reasonably good section of a franchise that one cannot stand in principle? Such has been my conflicted response to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. To review the sixth film of those insufferable preening Hogwarts urchins struck me as equivalent to critiquing a new McDonalds on the edge of town. Wasn't the wand-waving, special effects-laden climax of the Order of the Phoenix unbelievably long? Isn't Voldemort Ralph Fiennes' dullest role? When it comes to today's youth and their reading habits, should their main diet consist of this endless forced preppy wish-fulfillment in the guise of a black-robed geek with his Lennonesque round glasses and rebaked Merlin headmaster? (One can find the pernicious influence of this franchise at the local MagiQuest amusement castle, where whole families can "use their magic wands and earn powers to achieve increasing levels of success as they venture into their chosen quest through role-playing, intellect, teamwork, and imagination!" I've seen the MagiQuest billboards where even smiling Dad holds his wand aloft as he attempts to look dignified.) Even trying to think of the endless Harry Potter films and their many awkward compressions from the J. K. Rowling books makes my brain hurt.

Having said all of that, and having suffered an acquaintance who kept smugly telling me that Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie a hefty 98% approval rating just before we went to see it (it is now down to a more earthbound 87%), I reluctantly found that this chapter of the franchise has five good points after all.

1) The film begins with a fun point of view shot that falls toward London, swoops around, and ends up with Death Eaters wrecking the Millenium Bridge right near my favorite Tate Modern museum.

2) The Half-Blood Prince seems much more pleasantly self-aware than the other Potter movies. Early on, we see Harry blinded by the flashbulb lights of the press. A waitress asks him if he is actually Harry Potter, and he says no, but he knows him. When Harry runs into other characters, they tend to acknowledge his fame as the possible "Chosen One" (like Neo's quandary in The Matrix). After one adventure, Ginny Weasley asks, "Why is he [Harry] always covered in blood?" In another scene, Prof. McGonogall (Maggie Smith) asks Harry, Ron, and Hermione, "Why is it that whenever someone's in trouble, it is always you three?" At least this film acknowledges its many conventions as it indulges in them.

3) Where Hermione and Ron largely stood around for the last few films, this time they have real roles since Ron has to contend with the amusing mad-groupie affection of Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) and Hermione finds herself inexplicably jealous. Ron's sister Ginnie (Bonnie Wright) also has a strong interest in Harry, which makes Ron feel brotherly and protective, at odds with his friend. Some may say that all of this adolescent hoorah might be beside the point in the grand overarching narrative of the Potter/Voldemort confrontation, but I found the film more humorous and engaging as a result, even though bland Ginnie is a cipher compared to the others.

4) The potions are more fun this time. Ron goes completely love-silly on some love potion, and even Potter gets noticeably high when he drinks some "Liquid Luck." Between him and the already dotty Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), the movie gets giddy for awhile, which helped alleviate the grim maneuvres of bad guys like Draco Malfoy.

5) In part due to the inside jokes, the Half-Blood Prince has a more lived-in, offhand quality. It no longer needs to overwhelm us with its whimsy. Instead of hippogriffs, we get introduced to one large dead spider. Instead of reptilian Ralph Fiennes without a nose, we get a younger Voldemart known as Tom Riddle (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, hired due to resemblance to his uncle Ralph). Tom disdainfully enjoys bossing around snakes when he's not sneaking information from his professors. Even though you need to read the book to fully understand the overblown conclusion, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is more easygoing about its magic and its myth. It has an uncommonly light touch--a neat trick when so much money rides on the continued success of the franchise.


MovieMan0283 said...

Though I haven't seen any of the movies (except for a half-hour of the first film on TV and a half-hour of one of the many in-betweeners on an airplane flight) or even read any of the books (almost on general principle, to the consternation of my Potter-obsessed friends), I very much enjoyed reading this.

To you have as much scorn for the books as the movies? A few passages in your mildly enthusiastic assessment of episode six seemed to indicate this might be the case.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Movieman. I'm not objecting to the books so much as the media overkill of the entire Potter phenomenon. I did not like the overstuffed film version of the Goblet of Fire due to its many rigged competitions, nor much of the Order of the Phoenix (although Professor Umbridge is an entertaining Laura Bush-esque fascist). One of my favorite directors, Alfonso Cuaron was behind the Prisoner of Azkaban, so that helped that film immensely.

T.S. said...

I've heard nothing but enthusiastic praise for Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography. Granted, the praise is coming from Oscar-watcher circles, and it's only July, so I'm taking it with a grain of salt at the moment. Your thoughts?

FilmDr said...

Delbonnel definitely could have helped with the more genuine lived-in tweedy feel of the film. There's not much he could do with the cave lake or the giant spider, but I like the way the animated photographs and the little magic creatures seemed deemphasized this time. Sometimes they appear lower in the frame, as if we have all gotten used to them by now.

Skye said...

Greetings again, dear Doctor. It's been awhile.

I must say, the movie actually felt rather disjointed while looking back... strangely enough (to me, at least), I formed that observation near the end of the film. Somehow, this alternate telling of the book's events didn't feel quite right. There wasn't enough detail on the whole "Who is the Half-Blood Prince" business, which was slightly disconcerting to me considering the title of the film.

Certain characters were in need of more screen time; I felt like people such as Luna and Prof. McGonagall were slipped in just to make the movie feel like it was following the book a bit more.

Honestly, the humor was a bit over-the-top. I've read that some believe that the humor is a response to the end of their world (possibly), but I was left wanting something more serious instead of the teenage romantic comedy filling that was thrown in.

Additionally, Dumbledore being lit from the back in his final scene was rather amusing. I'm pretty sure that the audience will understand that he's one of the heroes; we don't need those silly little extra signs to portray him radiantly.

It was overall alright, though.

FilmDr said...

Thanks for your observations, Skye. I went to see the film with a large appreciative audience, and I was surprised to like much of anything about it. I have difficulty taking Potter developments seriously, so that's perhaps why I preferred the self-referential jokes and the romcom filling.

Sam Juliano said...

I'll admit this franchise has worn out it's welcome with me, although I have faithfully visited the theatre with my kids for every film, dating back to the beginning when two weren't even born. Likewise I only read up till book three. The brooding and thematically suggestive PRISONER OF AZKABAN is the best film in the series, even though it becomes a standard now for every new film to garner even higher and higher undeserved praise.

I saw this film with the family on Wednesday afternoon, and while th eending, (with the death of Dumbledore was perhaps the most poignant moment in the entire series) I found the set pieces and adventure deja vu all over again, while the philosophical underpinnings were stale.

The kids were solit on their rection with two loving it and the other three indifferent.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Sam. I agree with you, except Dumbledore's death meant nothing to me, and I liked the romantic intrigues more. I said in my last review that these films are a bit like class reunions, where much of the fun of the movies may be in allowing people to revisit old friends. That may be one explanation to the massive success of this film, but I also think it does a better job of bridging the gap between those who read the books and those who didn't.

Hokahey said...

FilmDr - I enjoyed your observations. I agree that the opening scene with the bridge is thrilling (though soon forgotten). And I can see that this installment is all about character development, but I thought the whole thing was kind of a snooze. Not enough urgency and suspense here for me.

FilmDr said...

Thanks Hokahey,

I think my response was partially the result of an enthusiastic crowd in a packed theater. I had no trouble keeping awake.

Jason Bellamy said...

Catching up on movies and blog posts about them, I just saw Half-Blood Prince. I was disappointed, having felt the previous film was the best in the series - enough to make me hope this would take the film another step forward. But this installment seemed to be treading water. I agree with your observations about Ron and Hermione, and I enjoyed its overall sense of humor. Still, in terms of Voldemort story that, come on, we've been hearing about for six films now, this felt like padding ... a way to insert another chapter into the story that doesn't need to be there. In that respect, HBP suffers from its spot in the pecking order.

Good observations here, and, just so you know, I always enjoy your film and media links, even if I tend to be silent in the comments section. Keep it up.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Jason,

The Voldemort business never meant anything to me, so that's why I didn't miss it.