DVD Release Date:  December 8, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  July 15, 2009
Rating:  PG (for scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality)
Genre:  Fantasy/Adventure, Adaptation, Sequel
Run Time:  153 min.
Director:  David Yates
Actors:  Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Jim Broadbent, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Gambon, Dave Lageno, Tom Felton, Bonnie Wright, Jessie Cave

Forgoing the usual light comedic exchange between Harry Potter and his Muggle family in the opening sequence of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, it's immediately apparent that the next two and a half hours won't simply be Hogwarts as usual.

Instead, it's much better.

Juxtaposing a far more ominous tone with the clumsy romantic entanglements of its teenage protagonists, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is easily the funniest, darkest and most ambitious film of the series. Thanks to eye-popping cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie, A Very Long Engagement), engaging storytelling with plenty of emotional resonance and the continued growth of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as actors, it's a particularly remarkable feat, considering how much the stakes were raised in J.K. Rowlings' novel the story was based on.

Although a few plot points were inevitably tweaked for the big screen, a move that's been widely debated among the blogosphere's fanboy contingency, the flick's strict adherence to the spirit of the book should still delight longtime fans. And for those who haven't already boarded the Hogswarts Express in the past, well, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince probably isn't the place to start because there's not much that's going to make all that much sense without the proper backstory.

In fact, context is really everything for the forthcoming festivities as the story begins without anything resembling a preamble. Basically, when Harry's longtime mentor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) shows up with a mission in mind for his young student, Harry isn't the least bit surprised. In fact, he says he's learned to "just go with it after all these years" whenever Dumbledore comes calling.

Then before the audience really has time to grab another handful of popcorn, Dumbledore instantly transports them to a nearby London suburb, where they meet up with the story's most important new character:  Horace Slughorn (an engaging Jim Broadbent), a retired professor who once taught at Hogwarts. Intent on having Slughorn come back to his post, Dumbledore's motivation only becomes clear much later in the story.

Along with Horace's return to Hogwarts, Harry and his pals Hermoine (Watson) and Ron (Grint) must do the same. While their easy, joking camaraderie as friends is still intact—a quality that can't help but make the audience like these characters—there's a strong sense that this year at Hogwarts isn't going to be schooling as usual either, especially since the reappearance of Voldemort and his followers, the Death Eaters, at the end of the last film, 2007's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

With the Death Eaters' foreboding presence, in the form of a smoky black streak coursing through the surrounding area and causing destruction at every turn, Dumbledore wants Harry, "the chosen one," to have a better understanding of his enemy. Through a magical viewing pool called a pensieve, Harry is able to access the memories of Voldemort that Dumbledore has collected over the years. Hoping this will provide Harry the key to Voldemort's weakness when he faces him again, Dumbledore is preparing Harry for what's sure to be a huge showdown in the series' last story, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which is split into two films releasing in 2010 and 2011, respectively.