Every film must stand on its own two feet.
If a film is an adaptation or about a particular subject then a talented filmmaker can make it so that one need not have any familiarity with the source material for the film to succeed. By the same token, if a film is a part of a series it should be a self-contained work that can stand alone. One doesn't need to see "Star Wars" to enjoy "The Empire Strikes Back."
The newest Harry Potter picture, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" doesn't quite follow these cinematic rules. Those not steeped in Pottermania - like myself - are likely to have a hard time following everything.
Thankfully, the film is still engaging enough that this doesn't really matter.
"Half-Blood Prince" shares the same structure as all the Potter movies and novels: a year in the life of the students at Hogwarts' Academy for Witches and Wizards. The year begins with the very real threat of evil wizard Voldemort and his Death Eater followers. Voldemort also has a new servant in the Hogwarts student and Potter rival Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton.)
The story's not entirely a battle of good and evil, though. Also thrown in are Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint,) the best friends of Harry "Chosen One" Potter (Daniel Radcliffe.) Romantic affections between Hermione and Ron rise as love potions and other admirers cause chaos.
"Half-Blood Prince" introduces a fascinating new Hogwarts professor in Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent.) Head Master and Potter-mentor Albus Dumbledore (Sir Michael Gambon) utilizes Harry to lure Slughorn back to Hogwarts and entrusts Harry with a mission to extract vital Voldemort history from this new professor.
The film also throws the audience a curveball in the character of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman.) Throughout the Potter series Snape has always stood in the background as a question mark. Is he friend or foe to Potter? "Half-Blood Prince" compounds these questions and this dramatic tension.
Throughout the film I was continually entertained and delighted. "Half-Blood Prince" is perhaps the most visually striking "Potter" film of the series. It has a bold camera that swoops and soars through the streets. Director David Yates continually comes up with neat special effects and colorful, vivid images.
The characters were also sympathetic. I've really grown to like Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Now seeing them as teenagers struggling with teenage problems is a lot of fun.
A fairly wide variety of tones are present throughout the picture. Moments of comedy, action, romance, and terror all seem to balance out to make for a pretty well-rounded experience. (And oh are the horror sequences effective. When was the last time a PG-rated film was this scary?)
I just couldn't put all the pieces together. I had a hard time understanding certain characters' motivations. It was often difficult to try and recall the events of the previous films. This confusion led to a decreased level of emotional engagement.
This wouldn't be a problem if, like my wife, I was steeped in Potter lore. I've seen all the movies but have not yet delved into the books. But I shouldn't have to do homework in order to pass going to the movies. If a plot doesn't make sense because the filmmaker just assumes you already know the material then there's a problem. In the case of "Half-Blood" it's ultimately not a fatal problem, though, since there are so many strong elements to more than compensate.
So, in other words, if you're a Potter fan it's an A. If you're a muggle (non-magic user) like the rest of us then it's a B. Regardless, it's still an improvement over most of the summer's blockbusters so far.