Count this installment as yet another transition in the series, a stepping stone or segue from one episode to the next in the continuing saga of the young wizard. "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the 2009 movie adaptation of J.K. Rowlings's novel, is the next-to-last chapter in the seven-book series but is the sixth movie in a succession of eight, with the seventh book taking up the final two films. Here in this "Ultimate Edition" box set, we have "The Half-Blood Prince" in Blu-ray high definition, decked out with an array of new special features.
Although "The Half-Blood Prince" is hardly a stand-alone movie as some in the series have been, it is, nevertheless, among the more enjoyable, placing its emphasis not purely on action or adventure but on characterizations and interrelationships. As such, it is a more mature film than many of the others and a more satisfying one, at least for viewers who respect and appreciate thought and emotion over dynamite thrills. Be aware, however, that it is also among the darkest installments in the series so far, and as such it isn't quite the high-definition feast for the eyes that some earlier episodes have been. Still, it looks quite good, with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack to match.
Suggesting that "The Half-Blood Prince" is a transitional story is not, however, to say it is without its unique twists and revelations. Indeed, it is the sometimes startling, sometimes poignant new developments that keep the story going: the circumstances regarding Professor Snape, Professor Dumbledore, Ron Weasley, Ginny Weasley, and Harry himself. They are often quite surprising circumstances, actually, and the plot uses them to set us up the final two-part segment to come, the climax of the entire saga, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."
British director David Yates, who not only directed this film but "The Order of the Phoenix" and both installments of "The Deathly Hallows," seems more interested in building mood, atmosphere, and character relationships than in continually hitting the viewer over the head with exciting exploits and whizbang special effects. For the die-hard action fan, this may be a shortcoming of the Yates installments; for fans of the novels, it may be a major strength. "The Half-Blood Prince" might move along more casually, more leisurely, than some episodes in the series, but in the long run it rewards the viewer with more information and more-satisfying interconnections among the principal players.
We get most of the usual cast back, so I need not mention them again or who is playing whom. The only new character of interest is Professor Horace Slughorn, played by the ever-dependable Jim Broadbent, who seems to be making a career of playing older, slightly eccentric professor types lately, and doing it nicely ("Harry Potter," "Chronicles of Narnia," "Indiana Jones," "Inkheart").
OK, here's the rundown: Voldemort is becoming more powerful than ever, and Hogworts has become a virtual fortress, with guards at the gates and magic spells protecting the perimeter against Deatheaters and Dementors. Dumbledore has recruited Professor Slughorn ostensibly to teach the potions class at Hogworts, but it's actually because Slughorn knows something about Voldemort that can help to defeat him, and Dumbledore wants Harry to help find it out. Simultaneously, we learn at the very beginning of the tale that Dumbledore has promoted Professor Snape, always a dubious character, to Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. We also learn that Snape is involved in possibly nefarious dealings with the maniacal Bellatrix Lestrange and the mother of the odious Draco Malfoy to protect Draco from harm and ensure the boy carries out some undisclosed evil deed. Meanwhile, amidst these malevolent goings-on Harry and his friends Ron, Hermione, and Ginny are experiencing growing pains as love blossoms at the school, and they must each determine who they really like.
In addition to all of this, Harry finds a textbook in advanced potions-making containing answers to complex spells written in the margin by one of the book's previous owners of long ago, a mysterious person who signed the book only "The Half-Blood Prince." What's all that about? We must wait to find out.
Then there's the introduction late in the proceedings of an obscure and powerful piece of magical property known as a Horcrux, a device used by Dark Wizards to extend life even unto immortality. More sinister yet, Lord Voldemort has apparently hidden away a number of these Horcruxes, which, if he reacquires them, will enable him to become the most-powerful Wizard on the planet, with the goal of conquering the world. Poor Harry. So little time; so much to do.
"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is at least as dark and foreboding as "The Prisoner of Azkaban" and "The Order of the Phoenix," yet, thankfully (and perhaps ironically), it also contains a good deal more humor, more sweet friendships, and more warm character illuminations than the others. Parts of "The Half-Blood Prince" are more elaborately embroidered, too, more dramatically illustrated, than in the novel--like the segment's ending, to be sure--but for the most part we get a deliberately paced, measured view of the characters, their motivations, and their relationships as they march onward toward the saga's conclusion.
Along the way, we get one of the longest yet most-delightfully entertaining installments in the "Harry Potter" series.
Understand, this is an extremely dark film, one of the darkest films yet in the "Potter" series, and as such it has a darkly wrought appearance. The WB video engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec to reproduce the film in its theatrical aspect ratio, 2.40:1, capturing the gloomy duskiness of the original print pretty well, insofar as I remember it from a movie theater, with healthy black levels and good shadow detail. The filmmakers shot a majority of the film at nighttime (or simulated nighttime), in simulated storms, and in simulated shadowy passageways, so don't expect the usual, bright visual delights. Nevertheless, there is good definition throughout, even though the film varies in sharpness from scene to scene from somewhat soft in some parts to beautifully crisp in others. Different cameras, different lenses, different lighting, different bit rates, etc., produce different results.
In terms of the technical qualities of the Blu-ray 1080p transfer, it's probably as good as it can be, with no signs of edge enhancement, noise or noise filtering, pixilation, color banding, or the like. While the image doesn't always look great in its near-monotone shades of grays, blues, greens, and sepia browns, it appears to be the way its creators meant it to look.
The soundtrack comes via lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and it is more subtle than you might expect from a "Potter" extravaganza, most likely because this is not a usual "Potter" extravaganza. Complementing the nuances of the plot and characterizations, the soundtrack uses the surrounds with delicacy, introducing small, unobtrusive noises into the sound design like the twitter of birds, the creaking of antique objects, and the breeze through the castle towers, accompanied by an attractive musical bloom in composer Nicholas Hooper's score. The advantage of the lossless track comes across in the midrange, which is smooth and natural, and the bass, which is bold, taut, and robust. In all, the DTS-HD Master Audio provides refined, evocative sound.
Disc one of this two-disc "Ultimate Edition" Blu-ray set contains the feature film and a "Maximum Movie Mode," with picture-in-picture commentary from Daniel Radcliffe and many of the cast and crew as they take us behind the scenes while we watch the movie; plus, there's a series of "Focus Points," fourteen brief featurettes that one can view either during the "Maximum Movie Mode" or separately.
In addition, the first disc contains thirty scene selections; BD-Live access; English, English descriptive narrative, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese subtitles; and English and German captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two is also a Blu-ray (BD25) and contains the majority of the special features. First up is "Creating the World of Harry Potter, Part 6: Magical Effects." It's sixty-four minutes long and takes us behind the scenes of the special effects in the series with commentary from the cast and crew.
Next is another featurette on special effects, "Behind the Magic," about forty-seven minutes. Then, there are "J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life," about fifty minutes on the author, with spoilers; "Close-up with the Cast of Harry Potter," eight segments with the cast and filmmakers totaling about twenty-eight minutes; "One-Minute Drills," seven minutes with the young actors recalling their roles in the plot; "What's on Your Mind?," about six minutes of questions and answers with the cast; "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter," about eleven minutes on the Universal Orlando Resort; "First Footage from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," about two minutes promoting the final installments; eight additional scenes at about seven minutes; and five interstitials, one teaser trailer, and three theatrical trailers.
Lastly, because this is an "Ultimate Edition," there are the usual collectibles: a beautifully illustrated, forty-four-page, hardbound book; an attractive lenticular picture; two limited-edition cards: Draco Malfoy and Albus Dumbledore; and instructions and code for a downloadable digital copy of the film (the offer expiring on June 12, 2012). Everything comes enclosed in a handsomely embossed, hard-cardboard box, further enclosed in a hard-cardboard slipcover (with the detachable lenticular picture on the front).
While the movie's only shortcoming is its extreme length, 153 minutes, that may also be a strength for those viewers who value getting their money's worth, especially when it means enjoying the high-definition picture and sound more. And there is no question the two-and-a-half hours go by entertainingly enough, making "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" one of the most affecting episodes in the "Potter" series. With its powerfully impassioned ending, "The Half-Blood Prince" leads Harry and his friends into the greatest adventure of them all in the final segments.