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.

While dealing with the whole Voldemort situation, there's another, far less threatening, but still powerful force that has overcome the students at Hogwarts—teen romance. Offering a nice bit of comic relief in these otherwise serious times, it seems everyone (including Harry) has been bitten by the infatuation bug. Not only has Hermoine's thinly veiled crush on Ron become far more pronounced (a scenario that's very enjoyable to watch, especially when she's green with jealousy, given the affection that Lavender [Jessie Cave] lavishes on Ron), but Harry has his eye on Ron's sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright), a romance that slowly and sweetly develops in the midst of Harry's focus on far more volatile matters.

Rather than feeling tacked on, a result that could've happened without the proper care, the romantic subplot provides a more human glimpse of these teens with a knack for wizardry. No matter how the world may be crashing down around them, Harry and his friends are still ruled by ungovernable forces like hormones and need each other's friendship and support like never before.

As one of the enduring themes of the Harry Potter series, friendship eventually evolves into self-sacrifice as the story wears on. Without revealing any major plot details, this sacrificial turn is precisely where this beloved children's series, not to mention the characters themselves, make their way into very adult territory. Feeling the weight of his fate as "the chosen one," Harry, along with his pals, are heading toward the ultimate battle between good and evil, one replete with religious symbolism and overtones. And more than ever before, the character of Harry is positioned as the Jesus figure, a symbol of hope in a hopeless world, a timely reminder that certainly won't be lost on any Christians who happen to be watching.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Harry, Hermoine and Ron drink butter beer.
  • Language/Profanity:  A few uses of mild profanity including "hell," "damn" and "piss off."
  • Sex/Nudity:  Romance is definitely on the brain in Hogwarts this time around. There are a few kisses between different teen couples, but nothing more.
  • Violence:  Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has an even darker tone than any of the other Potter movies to date. And the first scene definitely sets the pace when the Millennium Bridge is destroyed and several civilians are thrown off. A couple of fights break out between Harry and Draco, and their faces are bloodied. There are violent exchanges between the Weasleys and the Death Eaters, and more precarious spells are concocted than ever before, especially when one of Harry's classmates is possessed and nearly dies. The last 20 minutes are the most violent and action-packed of them all when Dumbledore and Harry make their way to the cave. What eventually goes down is different than what actually happens in the books, so I won't spoil it here. Be forewarned, however, this isn't stuff for younger children, despite the PG rating.

Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in St. Paul, Minn., she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.