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Harry Potter’s ‘Half-Blood Prince’ Delivers

J.K. Rowling's imagination, like Pandora's clown car speeding out of a cornucopia, seems endless. With "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the movie series has now matched the "Star Wars" saga, doubled the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and officially passed the 15-hour mark in total footage (adapted from over 3,500 pages of text).

All that, and the teenage characters are just getting to know each other.

Such is the incongruous nature of installment six. In the "Harry Potter" continuum it's a sturdy addition, laying the groundwork for the concluding films (sliced in two from the final novel). As a stand-alone entertainment, however, "Half-Blood" wavers between dizzying and dry — it's half-bloodless.

Similar problems plagued the Chris Columbus-directed early films, which laced intricate Dorothy Sayers-style mysteries and mythical Tolkien narratives into enormous cinematic doilies. But the third and fourth films, "Prisoner of Azkaban" and "Goblet of Fire," directed by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell, respectively, were memorably structured and brought pathos to the English-lit pastiche.

Helming the final stretch of films, David Yates maintains the series' more mature qualities, while screenwriter Steve Kloves mixes the 652-page novel's sorcerer opera and soap opera into a peculiar Polyjuice.

It's two tastes at once: A scene of Severus Snape (superbly sour Alan Rickman), promising to help Draco Malfoy fulfill a devilish task, might be followed by a scene of the red-headed Ron Weasley snogging (that's Brit-speak for "kissing") the romantically aggressive Lavender Brown — a "daft bimbo," as Hermione Granger jealously calls her.

Or a scene of Dumbledore (exceedingly pleasant Michael Gambon) enrolling a young, nascently evil Tom Riddle (aka Voldemort) at the Hogwarts School of Magic might be followed by a scene in which Ginny Weasley, kneeling to tie Harry's shoe, stands again to reveal that, yes, puberty has made her as tall and potentially snoggable as he is.

By film's end, the dual purposes lead to some weird dialogue, with Hermione saying: "Harry, we need to stop the Death Eaters before they destroy Hogwarts and lay waste to the Muggle World. Also, I think Ron's OK with you dating his sister Ginny as long as you two don't snog in front of him."

Not a direct quote, but it's close.

If "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" lurches drunkenly between drama and romantic comedy, perhaps it's because drinking is the key motif. When Harry, Ron and Hermione aren't sipping beer in a local pub (the legal drinking age in the United Kingdom is 16), they're brewing potions in a class led by professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent, the film's highlighted Great British Actor). Two action scenes occur in puddles, one character is poisoned, and the act of recalling memories (as Harry learns about the teenage Voldemort, as played by the chillingly steel-eyed Frank Dillane) involves dipping one's face into a bowl of water. Then there are the hormones ...

This is the most libation-loaded movie since Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious!" and it's not without thematic meaning: A potable placebo helps Ron build confidence in both his Quidditch and flirting skills; and when Harry tries to solve his primary challenge with an intoxicating luck potion, it's his own sober skills that finally matter.

The soused proceedings allow Daniel Radcliffe (Harry) and Rupert Grint (Ron) to show their comedic chops while the cast's biggest gem, Emma Watson (Hermione), sponges up emotion. Multiple supporting cast members add kick, from the budding Bonnie Wright as Ginny to Evanna Lynch as the quirky Luna Lovegood. (Possible drinking game: Down a cold one every time a character sarcastically says "brilliant.")

Now for the hangover: The story's serious side suffers. The book's adherents will notice multiple omissions and changes. Harry's mean-Muggle relatives, the Durseys, have been excised from the opening; the book's multiwizard showdown has apparently been pushed off to the seventh film; and the story's whodunit aspect, usually integral to a Harry Potter film, here approaches afterthought status (we learn the identity of the half-blood, but not the reason he's a "prince"). Voldemort himself only shows up as a skull in the clouds, relegating most of the villainy to a rabid Helena Bonham Carter.

It's especially quizzical that in a movie so full of liquid, the final sequence — which involves a beloved character's demise — elicits so few tears.

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." Rated: PG. Running time: 2 hours, 33 minutes. 2.5 stars.

To find out more about Zachary Woodruff and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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