When it comes to the Harry Potter franchise, everyone has his or her personal favorite movie. Perhaps it’s the international flavor of Goblet of Fire, or the pitch-perfect time travel of Prisoner of Azkaban. Rarely, though, does anyone single out Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as top tier Potter, despite the fact that the sixth film in the eight-movie franchise is tremendously impressive for a number of reasons. It’s visually stunning, walks a tonal tightrope between comedy, romance, and tragedy, and perfectly transitions the franchise out of the Hogwarts-centric adventures and into the endgame stakes of Deathly Hallows. Indeed, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the most underrated Harry Potter movie.
The structure of J.K. Rowling’s book series is such that we watch our main characters grow up in front of our eyes (both physically and emotionally), and that’s one of many aspects of the books that was translated perfectly to the big screen. The first two films are, in many ways, children’s movies, while Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban (the best of the Potter films, all told) explores a world of raging hormones and changes afoot as the characters enter puberty. Goblet of Fire forces the characters to consider the larger world around them, and Order of the Phoenix finds Hogwarts students banding together to learn how to physically fight evil.
Half-Blood Prince, however, is in a tricky spot. The story still takes place at Hogwarts, but with Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) return now publicly confirmed, it’s a much darker, much more dangerous school year than before. The final two films in the franchise, the Deathly Hallows two-parter, largely take place away from Hogwarts as the characters search for Voldemort’s horcruxes before one final, epic battle in and around the iconic school. With Half-Blood Prince, then, director David Yates offers fans a number of “classic” Hogwarts scenes—Ron (Rupert Grint) trying out for the quidditch team, Slughorn’s (Jim Broadbent) potions class, various conversational scenes set in the Great Hall—while also confronting some of the dark, real-world consequences to come head on.
Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Half-Blood Prince opens with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) on his own in London, flirting with a pretty waitress and setting up a date. His plans are upended by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) because of course they are, but it’s striking to see Harry living life like a young adult, driving home the idea that these characters are being forced to grow up much faster than normal. Growing up and the loss of innocence are significant themes of Half-Blood Prince, and Yates captures them tremendously, from Draco’s (Tom Felton) tragic arc as he’s tasked with killing Dumbledore to the stirring scenes featuring young Tom Riddle.
To that end, another aspect of growing up is beginning to realize that your adult mentors aren’t infallible. The Harry/Dumbledore relationship grows far more complex this time around, with the two almost serving as equals in the visually stunning but emotionally wrenching cave sequence. These seeds—Dumbledore growing somehow more mysterious, Harry and Ginny’s relationship, Draco joining Team Voldemort—are essential for the franchise’s Deathly Hallows finale, but there’s an elegance to the way they’re handled and teased in this film that’s wildly impressive and refreshing. Iron Man 2 this is not.
But beyond the thematic intrigue, Half-Blood Prince is also a marvel from a craft standpoint. It’s the only film in the Potter franchise to be nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar, with the legendary Bruno Delbonnel bringing a uniquely soft and almost dreamlike touch to the aesthetic. Delbonnel’s work is stunning, which is ironic considering he had already twice turned down the opportunity to shoot a Potter movie, and even initially said “no” to Half-Blood Prince before a first-hand look at Stuart Craig’s immaculate sets changed his mind. It’s a testament to Delbonnel’s work that six films in, you’ve never seen Hogwarts look quite like this. Composer Nicholas Hooper’s score, too, is tremendous, vascillating with grace between light romantic comedy and emotionally devastating tragedy (those chorals during Dumbledore’s death scene destroy me).
One of the reasons the Harry Potter franchise has endured so strongly (aside from Rowling’s source material, obviously) is that each film feels at once unique and distinct while also a piece of a whole. Half-Blood Prince follows the same characters we’ve grown to love over the previous films, but takes them to new and challenging heights—a challenge to which the actors eagerly rise. And while the film transitions the characters from schoolchildren to young adults who must save the world from unspeakable evil (a transition that some fans may find unpleasant), it still finds time to beautifully linger in moments of love, of heartache, and friendship. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a gorgeous, haunting film unlike any other in the franchise, and despite its somewhat under-the-radar status, it’s undoubtedly one of the series’ best.