Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince evokes J.K. Rowling's books better than any of the previous 5 movies, and is unsurprisingly the best of the series because of it. David Yates returns to the director's chair and he seems to really understand how to make these movies. The first two in the series were too slavish to the novels, afraid to make any changes to Rowling's material, even though some changes are always necessary when switching between formats. The third film saw visual mastermind Alfonso Cuaron taking over the directing duties and adding a certain flair that was missing from the flatness of the first two. But it was frustratingly clipped in its running time, making it feel rushed and having none of Rowling's small character moments that make her books such a joy to read again and again. The fourth film was less visually pleasing, but benefitted from a far better story. The fifth in the series, and the first from Yates, showed much of the darkness that runs through the novels, without forgetting the humor, and added many of the smaller moments that I love so much. Half-Blood Prince takes that same approach to another level, and becomes both a great adaptation, and a great movie.
The kids that play our three heroes, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, have grown up right in front of our eyes over the past 8 years. There have been a number of the awkward moments that you expect from young actors, but I found none of those in this movie. Daniel Radcliffe has really embodied Harry, not simply resting on his resemblance to the character description in the books (which has always been almost exactly as Rowling described Harry). Rupert Grint has an ease on screen as Ron, this time around getting the chance to be more than just the comic relief. Emma Watson has not only grown into a stunning young woman, but proven that she's probably the most talented of the group, imbuing Hermione with intelligence, grace, and a heartbreaking vulnerability that you don't often expect to get from an actress her age. Half-Blood Prince is her best chance yet to prove her skills.
The teachers and other adults have often felt, to me, simply like cameos from some of Britain's greatest talents. They mostly still do here, but there is less of them. Michael Gambon could never have pulled off a Dumbledore as he was created in the books, I don't think any actor ever could. He is still immensely effective in this movie though, bringing the humor that he'd brought in the past, while also bringing some of the gravitas he'd been missing from the character. Alan Rickman thankfully enjoys more screentime in this outing, and the movie is much better off for it. His Professor Snape is one of the great joys of the series, and Rickman is better here than he's been in any of the previous films. I'm afraid that I'm not quite happy with Jim Broadbent's Professor Slughorn, who got turned into little more than a bumbling fool in transition from page to screen. Helena Bonham Carter, on the other hand, perfectly cast as Bellatrix Lestrange, is a bit more reined in in her performance, in a good way. She makes the absence of Voldemort himself a little less noticeable.
Visually, I think that Yates has created the best of the series. His framing of shots and scenes, as well as his seemless transitions add both a visual and storytelling flow that I don't think the series has yet had. Also, along with writer Steve Kloves, Yates isn't scared of not being plot driven, and adds in moments that build the relationships between the characters. The budding romances between Ron and Hermione, and Harry and Ron's sister Ginny are both handled beautifully. A scene in the Room of Requirement between Harry and Ginny is completely nonexistent in the novel, but is perfection in dealing with the development of their relationship, as well as just being a wonderful moment all on its own, one which could've easily been written by Rowling herself.
It's not flawless, but most of the complaints I had were extremely minor. I would've loved to have had more of Evanna Lynch's pitch-perfect Luna Lovegood, but that's just wishful thinking. I think many fans of the books might be disappointed in the staging of the climax of the story (and the omittance of a legendary fight in the series), but I am not one of those people. All the changes made are understandable, and they all work just fine in the context of the movie. The Inferi aren't quite what I pictured them as, but Gambon's acting in the sequence, and Yates' conscious evoking of The Ten Commandments work terrifically to make the impact that the scene needs to make.
Overall, as a giant (and longtime) Harry Potter nerd, I was thrilled with this movie. It's by far the best in the series, and gets me even more excited to see how David Yates handles the final chapter of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which is going to be split into two movies. I'm just sad I'll have to wait until next fall to see part 1.