One big difference between Half-Blood Prince and, say, I Love You, Beth Cooper (a terrible teen comedy, but one directed by Chris Columbus, the man behind the first two Harry Potters): Instead of exclaiming "Omigod!" at every shocking turn, the phrase of choice for aghastness and surprise is "Merlin's beard!"
David Yates, director of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), returns, bringing a steady hand and a subtle playfulness to the proceedings. This isn't up there with Alfonso Cuarón's The Prisoner of Azkaban (the third, the darkest, and still the best of the Potter adaptations), but its lack of pretense and quiet celebration of J.K. Rowling's iconography imbues it with charm.
As the story begins, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is slumming with Muggles in London, flirting with a waitress in a cafe (she recognizes him from the photo in the newspaper, under the headline "Harry Potter - the Chosen One?"), and promising to meet up with her after work. Harry, you rascal, you.
But Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) has an assignment for the lad with the lightning scar on his forehead, plucking Harry from a tube station platform and flying off to a cozy country village where a retired Hogwarts professor, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), is in hiding.
An expert on potions, and a teacher with a serious Voldemort connection, Professor Slughorn is needed back at the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in order to fulfill a fateful obligation. And Harry and Dumbledore are there to negotiate his return.
Millions of Rowling readers will come to The Half-Blood Prince fully aware of the plot permutations and character conflicts in the book series' penultimate installment. (The final volume, HP and the Deathly Hallows, will be split into two films.) Hermione (Emma Watson) finds herself bristling and agitated when Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) shows interest in another girl, Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave). Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is once again up to no good - conspiring with Professor Snape (Alan Rickman, master of the dramatic pause) on a mission of epic evil. And the romance between Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) and Harry burgeons.
The magic of the Harry Potter films is twofold. Hogwarts' world of horrific hexes and ricocheting Quidditch balls is presented in artful detail - the ancient books, the cathedral-like dining hall, the (yes) dragon tartare hors d'oeuvres - but there's a disarming matter-of-factness about it all, too. Hexes and spells and Dark Arts, yeah, so what else is new?
And having grown up on screen, from pipsqueaks back in 2001's inaugural to the almost-adults they are today, Radcliffe, Watson and Grint evince a rapport and chemistry that feels authentic.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, for all its dire turns and bewitching intrigues, has a sense of normalcy and continuity about it - Harry, Hermione and Ron seem like very old friends at this point, even if they're still quite young.
Young and in love.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/iii