Warner Bros. // 2009 // 153 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // December 14th, 2009
"Times like these, dark times, they do funny things to people. They can tear them apart." -- Arthur Weasley
Five months after having seeing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince twice in rapid succession during its theatrical run -- once in IMAX and the other in Digital Projection -- I'm coming at the film with a set of fresh eyes. Disappointed with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (the only film in the series not scripted by Steve Kloves), the return of director David Yates and his impressive production team gave me hope the franchise would rebound...and it did. Second only to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in both visual splendor and emotionally layered storytelling, this penultimate tale fires on nearly all cylinders, save for the fact that it's merely the introduction of an intense three-part adventure. What I did not expect is that Warner Bros. would stupefy us with a less than impressive DVD, taking the shine off one of the most anticipated releases of the holiday season.
Despite a mountain of Ministry denials and a vicious campaign to slander the reputation of "the boy who lived," the truth won out. Voldemort has indeed returned, and no one is safe. With both the Muggle and Wizarding worlds reeling, Dumbledore has taken it upon himself to tug at the loose threads and unravel the seemingly invincible tapestry the Dark Lord has enshrouded himself with, before time runs out. Meanwhile, life at Hogwarts is anything but normal, even though many believe it to be the safest place for our heroes, Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Unfortunately, all but Harry fail to realize there is a wolf (or two) amongst Dumbledore's flock, an oversight which may prove deadly, if he is unable to expose the traitor(s) before their objectives are achieved.
Not wanting to duplicate my Cinema Verdict review of the film (see sidebar link under "Accomplices"), I've delved a bit deeper into the analysis.
There's no denying Half-Blood Prince is a dark turn in the franchise. Gone are the wonder and amazement of the magical world which lies just beyond Muggle perception. Gone are the innocent yet thrilling adventures of years one through five. From here on out, every action, every decision, and every misstep has serious and somewhat dire consequences for Harry and company. Voldemort is now at full strength and will stop at nothing to achieve complete control of a world he views as rightfully his. And even though the Dark Lord himself steps nary a slithering foot into the waters of this chapter, his manipulations permeate every frame. He is terrorism incarnate.
My initial take on this tale was seeing it as a metaphor for the post-9/11 world which has consumed our consciousness. And yet Judge Melissa Hansen, seeing the film for the first time, opened my eyes to a new perspective, one in which the Columbine Massacre overlays the events at Hogwarts more succinctly. Yes, there is a traitor amongst them, but this is not a jihad of radical and fervent beliefs. It's more basic and primal than that. This is about coming of age, self-esteem, and being not only accepted but valued and respected by our peers. When one has been stripped bare, exposing all weaknesses and flaws to judgement and ridicule, there's very little left to hold onto, leaving them vulnerable to influence and manipulation. In that dark place, sometimes all it takes is a nudge to fall over the edge, despite what may be hundreds of internal alarms warning them of impending doom.
Once again, Harry is among the few who see the world as it truly is, rather than how the powers-that-be want it to be seen. And yet, this boy has cried wolf far too many times to be taken seriously. So life marches on. Teenage hormones rage. Relationships are forged, bent, and broken. Games are played. Lessons are learned. All the while, blissfully unaware to most, events are transpiring like moves on a giant chess board between the forces of darkness and light. Major life-altering decisions play out to little notice or fanfare, save for us (the audience) and the key players involved. Only when the stakes become too high to be ignored, does the general populace see these problems for what they are, and by then there's little chance to do anything about them.
So, while there is a great deal of character development in Half-Blood Prince (not nearly as much as you'll find in JK Rowling's 652 page tome), the film serves as the setup for the events to follow in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows parts 1 and 2. Sure, we get a taste of the action to come, but the majority of it has been wisely scaled back, so as not to shoot the wad before the story's climax. Credit David Yates and Steve Kloves for plotting and pacing this trilogy as a symphonic adventure, each movement contained and well-defined, with very few loose ends other than those expressly designed to tie the three films together. What we get is more Hitchockian thriller than blockbuster cinematic tentpole, a bold and risky move, but one which may well pay off in spades come November 2010 and July 2011.
Let's not forget, however, that all this planning and staging are for naught, if you don't have the horses to pull the cart. This is one area where Yates has no worries whatsoever. His stable of talent on Half-Blood Prince is as good, if not better than any previous chapter in the franchise. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, continue their maturation as actors, playing off some of the biggest names in the business, most of which are at the top of their game. Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, and Alan Rickman command our attention every time they appear on screen. These aren't just masterful actors. They've created brilliant characters, taking what's on the page and giving it life well beyond anything JK Rowling could have imagined her heroes and villains to be. Sadly, several fan favorites get lost in the required story compression, giving us much less of Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix), Julie Walters and Mark Williams (Molly and Arthur Weasley), James and Oliver Phelps (Fred and George Weasley), David Thewlis and Natalia Tena (Lupin and Tonks), Maggie Smith (Prof. McGonagall), and Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid). For the same reason, new castmates Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy) and Dave Legeno (Fenrir Greyback) can only tease us with characters who will play a much larger role in the next two films. It's one of the most impressive casts ever assembled for a franchise, and one which doesn't get the full respect it deserves.
But this is where my praise comes crashing to a halt. Warner Bros. has given us one of the most pitiful transfers of a new film we've ever seen from the studio. Seriously, I thought Fox's Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem was dark, but Half-Blood Prince might very well be worse. I have no idea who let this one slip through quality control. For a film that was staggeringly beautiful on the big screen, the DVD presentation is muddy, lacking detail and definition, while entire scenes are swallowed up by someone falling asleep on top of the brightness/contrast control. There is a great deal of color correction on this picture, many scenes awash in swaths of cool blues and warm yellows and oranges, most of which is lost here. Dumbledore and Harry's seaside cave adventure nearly looks like it was shot in black and white, draining a tremendous amount of life and energy from the scene. Incredibly disappointing. I can only hope the Blu-ray did not suffer the same fate. If anything, releases like this fuel conspiracy theorists' speculation that the studios are forcing consumers to go hi-def to avoid sub-par standard-def titles. I don't buy it, but that's just me. Thankfully, the audio steps in to salvage our appreciation for the film, its Dolby 5.1 track coming through with great clarity and rich ambience. I've been spoiled by DTS-HD and TrueHD audio, so the standard 5.1 feels less robust in comparison, but those who remain SD audio pure will find this an enveloping experience. Nicholas Hooper's subtle yet effective score plays upon our emotions, only rarely cutting loose with humorous and energetic romps like "Wizard Wheezes." This speaks to the dark tone of the film, shedding the magic of John Williams early themes.
Sadly, the disappointment bleeds into the bonus material. Sorely lacking any sort of commentary track (stay tuned for the Ultimate Edition franchise collection), what we do get is more flash than substance:
First Footage from Deathly Hallows (2 min)
A quick behind-the-scenes peek at production on the final two films, as directed once again by David Yates. Our heroic trio are shown running through the woods, running through the streets of London, wandering through graveyards, plotting their next moves, conferring with Mr. Olivander (John Hurt) and Griphook (Warwick Davis), and attending Bill and Fleur's wedding. You can find more by advancing through the footage slowly.
Additional Scenes (7 min)
Trimmed from existing sequences or excised altogether, there are only a handful which would have enhanced the film in a signifcant way, specifically those dealing with the Room of Requirement. Those unaware of the book or the use of the room for Dumbledore's Army in Order of the Phoenix will view this location as just another space within Hogwarts' vast square footage. But connecting it to the history and revealing the significance of the twin vanishing cabinets would have been valuable information for the audience. If only cut for time, it was a mistake. The rest of the footage means very little to the story.
Close-up with the Cast (29 min)
A collection of mini-featurettes tied together with comedic commentary by Matt Lewis (Neville Longbottom) and Alfie Enoch (Dean Thomas). Daniel talks with editor Mark Day. Matt, Oliver Phelps (George Weasley), and Tom Felton (Draco) get the lowdown on practical effects. Jessie Cave (Lavendar Brown) learns the ins and outs of owl training. Rupert takes a beating from the stunt team. Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood) is complimented by costume designer Jany Temime on crafting many of Luna's accessories. Bonnie Wright (Ginny) talks about her offscreen work with the art department. James Phelps (Fred Weasley) takes us along on his daily routine as an assistant director. Finally, Emma Watson (Hermione) reminisces with makeup maven Amanda Knight, who has been with the franchise from the very beginning. If nothing else, it shows just how much of a family this production team has become and the tremendous amount of fun they've had over the past nine years.
One-Minute Drills (7 min)
Join Dan, Emma, Rupert, Oliver and James, Bonnie, and Tom, as they each attempt to encapsulate their respective characters' entire onscreen history in less than one minute. They do so surprisingly well!
What's on Your Mind? (7 min)
A shaggy Tom Felton hosts an impromptu game show in which his fellow castmates provide off-the-cuff responses to such questions as "What's your favorite food?," "What iconic historic figure would you want to spend time with?," and "If you were stranded on a desert island, what one book would you want with you?"
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (12 min)
A somewhat in-depth look at the new Harry Potter themed land at Universal Studio's Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida. Still under construction and heading for a Spring 2010 launch, park designers and the film's production team share their thoughts and insights on what to expect from the three major attractions and various shops/restaurants.
JK Rowling: A Year in the Life (50 min)
This feature-length, made-for-television documentary is the single most valuable feature on the release. Fans of the books and the films alike will be drawn in by the story of an impoverished and emotionally distraught single mother who threw herself into creating a world of her own making and control. Never did she forsee the profound impact her stories would have on the world, stories written as a catharsis for processing long-standing personal issues.
For as much as I love Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I strongly urge you to hold off on purchasing it until you upgrade to Blu-ray or await the sure-to-be forthcoming "Ultimate Edition" franchise release. The pathetic video transfer and lack of valued bonus features will eventually force this one into the value bins.
The film is released on its own recognizance, but the DVD authoring team is sentenced to a year in solitary confinement to atone for their sins.
Review content copyright © 2009 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 153 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted Scenes
* Digital Copy
* Official Site
* Cinema Verdict Review