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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Magic Touch

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In terms of sustained quality, I daresay that the Harry Potter franchise trumps all other series featuring more than three entries. That other "Harry," Dirty Harry, falls just short, and even the entertaining James Bond canon has been subject to a few missteps over the decades. But Potter and friends have been delighting movie audiences since first taking their bows in 2001, and the individual works have been so consistently fine that it's no wonder more than one title has been tossed around as the best of the bunch (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban seems to be the slight favorite among buffs, although forced to choose, I'd have to go with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). And now here's the sixth installment, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, to add more fuel to the fiery debate.

Chris Columbus was unfairly lambasted in some quarters for the first two Potter pics, but I think his comparatively lighthearted approach worked since the early chapters were as much about the Disneyland appeal of the Hogwarts school as anything else. But as J.K. Rowling's books progressed, the child actors matured, and the directors changed, the franchise began to take on a decidedly darker tone, with a likable character killed off in each of the three most recent works and teen protagonists Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) continually having to contend with raging hormones that prove to be as challenging to conquer as any Dementor.

The evil Lord Voldemort was finally given human form in the previous two pictures (Ralph Fiennes oozed slithery menace in the part), but in Half-Blood Prince, he's never seen, only felt (Tom Riddle, who became Voldemort, is spotted as a student in flashbacks, however). But as in the last movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, there's the feeling that the bad guys are winning, and Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) needs to quickly come up with some sort of game plan. He enlists the unwitting aid of a former professor, the jovial if distracted Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), and instructs Harry to discreetly probe him for information that might help them defeat Voldemort and his minions. Harry takes on the task, albeit not at the complete expense of a social life. He finds himself becoming increasingly attracted to Ron's younger sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright, the weak link in the cast), even as the once-spindly, now-buff Ron finds himself the object of attraction for the mature Hermione and the hyperactive Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave).

David Yates, the first director since Columbus to helm more than one installment, picks up where he left off with Phoenix, mixing personal scenes involving the students with more weighty material that furthers the blackest aspects of the saga. These latter-named segments are suitably moody -- and often allow the FX team to show off their handiwork -- yet the heart of the piece remains the interactions between the characters, both teen and adult. Indeed, if there's a problem with the newer flicks, it's that there's no longer any quality time to be afforded to most of the grownups in the cast. The gentle giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), my personal fave, now puts in what basically amounts to cameo appearances; ditto the droll Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith). On the other hand, the intriguing Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) continues to figure in the proceedings, and, among the kids, it's nice to see the delightfully airy Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) again.

Folks who see this typically accomplished -- if occasionally choppy -- entry will immediately be anxious to view the adaptation of Rowling's seventh and final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Yet it'd be inaccurate for me to urge readers to mark the date. Instead, mark the dates, as Deathly Hallows will be released as two separate films: Part I on Nov. 19, 2010, and Part II on July 15, 2011. Buy those calendars early.

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