Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is where the mega-popular series about the boy wizard gets dark. Not that it was all Quidditch and giggles before J.K. Rowling published her sixth Potter book in 2005, but this is where things start to boil over and someone very close to Harry and his pals, gulp, dies.
As the penultimate story in the series, The Half-Blood Prince plays a lot like The Two Towers, the middle part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In a way, it's just a steppingstone between exposition and climax. But it's also a crucial part of the tale — perhaps the most important link, the chapter that tidies up some past questions and opens up a crapload of others.
In The Half-Blood Prince, evil Voldemort's presence lurks in the corridors of Hogwarts, even though he's MIA in the movie. Something bad is definitely brewing, and grand old wizard Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) wants to make sure Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his trusty schoolmates, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), are prepared. Meanwhile, everyone's libidos are out of control. As if the oncoming darkness wasn't enough to deal with!
The film opens with a dazzling scene of the Death Eaters (black wisps of smoke that transform into Voldemort's minions, including one played by Helena Bonham Carter) causing havoc throughout the city. In a café on the other side of town, Harry is flirting with a waitress. These two images set up The Half-Blood Prince's central themes.
Harry, Hermione and Ron's relationships — with each other and with various other young wizards and witches — take up a sizable chunk of the movie's narrative. Much is made of these budding romances; the horny teens' raging libidos fuel much of the onscreen tension. All the human feelings rub nicely against the increasingly menacing fantasy world. Director David Yates keeps the tone dark and gothic, staging some genuinely creepy scenes (particularly the climatic cave battle).
The movies and actors have gotten more assured over the years. It helps that The Half-Blood Prince is one of the best Potter books, but this is also one of the best films — assertive, thrilling and funny. Still, it can't help but feel like a bridge at times (the final chapter, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will be divided into two parts onscreen; the first is due next year). But what a sturdy bridge it is.