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Bonnie Wright as Ginny Weasley and Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in Warner Bros. fantasy adventure "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."Courtesy of Warner Bros. Enterta

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Directed by David Yates Written by Steve Kloves Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Michael Gambon and Jim Broadbent Classification: PG

As we've been saying every year or so for the past decade, Harry's back. Even more than the James Bond series, the Potter movies are a modern movie institution, distinct from most current cinematic trends but never going below a high standard of state-of-the-art execution. Sticking closely enough to J.K. Rowling's fictional vision to satisfy her readers, the Potter movies maintain a characteristic blend of quaint humour, CGI-created fantasy and richly Dickensian characters against the background of an extended coming-of-age story.

The experienced team behind the Harry Potter movie series is comfortably in the groove with the sixth film, which plays down the fantastic elements and introduces contrasting playful teenaged romance and a new tone of adult gloominess with the death of a major character. Director David Yates, who made the fifth film, returns, joining screenwriter Steve Kloves, who wrote the first four Potter films. They are aided by two-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel ( Amélie, A Very Long Engagement), who adds a more intense metallic flair to the Potter visual palette. Collectively, they manage to blend a succession of narrative and mood shifts from ominous foreboding to humorous romantic growing pains to flat-out gothic horror over a 2 1/2-hour running time. Like all the movies in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has an occasionally enervating sequential quality, though the filmmakers eventually build to a decisive Lord of the Rings-style climax.

As the years roll by, the acting is constantly improving from the younger stars - Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley and especially Emma Watson's piquant performance as Hermione Granger. As usual, the performances of the Hogwarts faculty - Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane and Maggie Smith - are first-rate, coming from a couple of gifted generations of British theatrical stars who make these over-the-top characters gravely credible.

There has been more than the usual pent-up tension among the Potter cult for this film. It was pushed back from its original release date last Christmas when Warner Bros. was still earning revenue from The Dark Knight. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a transitional movie that builds toward the series showdown, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which has been split into two movies, to be released in 2010 and 2011.

Life in Hogwarts is the usual mix of school rivalries and supernatural threats. The evil Lord Voldemort (who only appears in his adult form very briefly in a montage) is on the rise. His agents, the Death Eaters, invisible but leaving inky trails across the London sky, are attacking, destroying Hogwarts students' homes and mangling the Millennium pedestrian bridge over the Thames. Harry's rival, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), has been designated to commit an evil task in preparation for Voldemort's return, and the ambiguous Severus Snape (Rickman) pushed by the evil sorceress Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) has vowed to protect the boy. One of the ancillary pleasures of the Harry Potter movies is that you can always sit back and savour the nuances of Rickman's mordantly deliberate delivery.

Harry, now about 17 but looking as short and boyishly bespectacled as usual, is about to pick up a waitress from a local café when Professor Dumbledore (Gambon) spirits him away on a special mission. They must recruit Professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent as an antsy, vain pedant) to come work for Hogwarts. Slughorn, a weak character with a shady past, has certain key memories of Voldemort's days at school, which Harry must help recover.

Because the kids are in their late teens now, there's an explosion of romantic entanglements. Harry has a crush on Ron's tomboyish sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright). Hermione still carries her inexplicable torch for Ron and watches with increasing exasperation as he is swept away by the simpering Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave). Being teenagers, the kids experiment freely with mind-altering substances; Harry finds an old potion textbook with useful notes in the margin from its previous owner, the "half-blood prince" of the film's title. Hermione gives Ron a supernatural boost during an excitingly shot Quidditch match.

The movie's climax takes Harry Potter into territory that is much more like epic horror than most of what the series has seen before. There is more obvious religious symbolism and apocalyptic violence as Harry emerges into his role as "the chosen one." Yates is scheduled to return for the final two instalments and his climax here seems designed to set up the grander battle of good and evil for the final films. Think of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince then as the last glimpse of innocence lost.