The "Harry Potter" franchise is a rare cinematic creature: one that actually improves the longer it gets in the tooth. For "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the sixth installment, the filmmakers strike a pitch-perfect balance of faithfulness to the J.K. Rowling novel without being too oblique for neophytes. Here, director David Yates displays an impressive surefootedness with the dynamics of a ginormously successful franchise that, by any standard, must be daunting.
"Prince" finds Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his chums, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), are now teenagers subject to the same hormone-addled dramas that plague their Muggle counterparts. Love is in the air at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which means rivalries, heartaches and the generous use of love potions.
The young leads have literally grown into their roles since the franchise launched in 2001, and that familiarity adds depth to the characters. Radcliffe has the thankless task of being a somewhat passive hero, but he's likable enough. Watson reveals vulnerability, while Grint gets to display a knack for comedy.
The cast even manages to avoid being upstaged by truly dazzling special effects. While other flicks demonstrate the bludgeoning potential of CGI, Yates opts for the more time-honored tradition of using cinema magic to advance story and character. Such visual sumptuousness does not come without some sacrifice; a few narrative threads go nowhere.
Perhaps most frustrating, if inevitable, is the absence of a satisfying conclusion. "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is the "Empire Strikes Back" of the franchise, a necessary bridge to "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," which will be split into two parts over the next two years. That's a long time to wait for any cliffhanger, but word is there's a book somewhere that might provide some answers.