Harry Potter has kept his fans waiting for two years, the longest school break they have had to endure for a new movie adventure about the teen wizard.
It's been worth the wait.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth movie in the fantasy franchise based on J K Rowling's books, is the franchise's best so far, blending rich drama and easy camaraderie among the actors with the visual spectacle that until now has been the real star of the series.
The hocus-pocus of it all nearly takes a back seat to the story and characters this time, and the film is the better for that. It doesn't skimp on the Quidditch action, sorcery duels or occult pyrotechnics, but those are simply part of the show, not the main attraction.
Previous installments played out in a supernatural bubble bearing little connection to our ordinary little Muggle world. Half-Blood Prince brims with authentic people and honest interaction — hormonal teens bonding with great humor, heartache that will resonate with anyone who remembers the pangs of first love.
Drop the magic act, and Hogwarts could be any school of self-absorbed geeks, jocks, popular kids and outcasts trying to maneuver through the day. Even the class bad boy provides insight into the behavior of bullies.
Half-Blood Prince escalates the peril for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best pals, Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), while giving the threesome that first collaborated as prepubescent kids their best platform yet to show their maturing acting chops.
David Yates, who made 2007's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, returns to direct, his deepening confidence and comfort with the Potter realm on display throughout.
Three distinctive directors — Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell — made the first four movies. Along with Yates on No.5, the filmmakers all brought their own touches and baubles, but there was a sameness about the series that was growing tiresome by Yates' first one.
This time, Yates stays true to the Rowling recipe yet infuses the film with a freshness and energy that makes it seem like a new start, not the stale old chapter six it could have been.
Though the movie drags a bit toward the end, screenwriter Steve Kloves — who adapted the first four books and returns after a one-film hiatus — generally keeps the intricate plot rolling breathlessly.
Harry's big challenge this school year is a clandestine assignment by Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), who enlists his protege to retrieve a critical memory that new Professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) possesses about young Tom Riddle, the future dark Lord Voldemort.
Academy Award winner Broadbent gives the best performance yet in a Harry Potter flick, mingling a cock-of-the-walk flamboyance with the deep melancholy of a teacher bearing the shame of disappointment in both himself and a star pupil gone bad.
The usual teen high jinks and crises lighten the story with plenty of laughs. Romantic entanglements — which have gradually preoccupied Harry, Hermione, Ron and other classmates as they stumbled into puberty — burst out like a wicked case of acne this year.
Ron is dating bubble-headed bimbo Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), putting Hermione into a jealous snit. Harry's got his own love triangle, falling for Ron's sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright), who's dating another student.
Along with a romantic rival, Harry has a more dangerous foe in Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), his bullying tormentor, now a torn and troubled youth himself as an agent of Voldemort.
Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have lived these roles for so long — almost half their lives — that Harry, Hermione and Ron seem like second nature to them. Whether their acting careers flourish after Harry Potter or not, they have left an impressive little body of work with these three characters alone, developing them into full-blooded youths that feel real despite their fantastical surroundings.
Most fans know the shocker in store involving Dumbledore and the ominous Professor Snape (Alan Rickman). Like their young co-stars, Gambon and Rickman live and breathe these characters by now, Dumbledore a towering presence of grace and nobility, Snape a delightful cold fish whose actions reveal his tiger-shark stripes.
Others among the returning favorites are Robbie Coltrane as Harry's mountainous ally Hagrid, Maggie Smith as prim Professor McGonagall, Julie Walters as Ron and Ginny's genial mom, Evanna Lynch as ditzy Luna Lovegood, and Helena Bonham Carter, who's a wicked wonder as Bellatrix Lestrange, one of Voldemort's fiercest fanatics.
Visual-effects technology definitely have caught up with Rowling's imagination — and the filmmakers have some rowdy fun with their splendid images.
The Quidditch match on flying broomsticks is like airborne rugby, the way the players hammer into one another. And the broomsticks between the boys' legs take on a bawdy phallic look that wryly complements the sexual themes emerging among the teens.
Director Yates is also making the two-part adaptation of the seventh and final book, the movies due out in November 2010 and July 2011. Half-Blood Prince should leave fans as eager for those last movies as a high-school junior is for graduation day.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG for scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality.
Running time: 153 minutes
Rating: Three and a half stars out of four