The Harry Potter series—including the books, the movies, the videogames, the clothing, the toothpaste, the Weasley Brothers' Home Pregnancy Tests—has made $9,392,791,491,891 billion since J.K. Rowling's first book came out in 1997.
Thanks to totally factual statistics like the one above, it's easy to get overwhelmed by the Potter juggernaut—to see the thing as a monolithic marketing machine, and to forget that why it's made so much money is because of a really fucking good story. For their legions of eager young fans (and slightly creepy older fans), the Potter books are some of the most imaginative, moving, and captivating novels that've come out in the last decade—so it only follows that the movies based on them should be equally great.
That hasn't been the case, though: Chris Columbus' cluttered attempts to adapt the first two Potter books inspired more headaches than delight. Mike Newell's bland take on the fourth book in the series merely sufficed (and that was only because of that one kickass part with the Hungarian Horntail). David Yates' flat, uninvolving take on the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, felt like a checklist of required events, with a forced, unconvincing air of darkness. In fact, the only decent Potter flick thus far—the only film that captured Rowling's sense of both danger and whimsy, of sadness and humor—was Y Tu Mama También director Alfonso Cuarón's fantastic, beautiful adaptation of the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. And so for a while, it seemed like we'd only get one great Harry Potter film, and a whole lot of okay ones.
That is until this week, when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince—based on the sixth book in the series—came along. Like Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince is helmed by David Yates, but this time around, he's far more assured and inspired—Half-Blood Prince moves briskly and confidently, has moments of genuine delight and creepiness, is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and juggles its preposterously gargantuan cast and nuanced plot with as much grace as can be expected. There is melancholy here, and regret, and the sense that for this series' once-naïve characters, the stakes are significantly higher. As in Cuarón's film, Rowling's world feels impressively wrought and realized, and between this installment's darkness and the fact that its characters are allowed to grow and emote far more than in any earlier film, Half-Blood Prince handily feels like the most mature of the offerings thus far. The sense of daydreamy whimsy from the earliest films has been replaced with portentous doom; Harry Potter's world is still a magical and enviable one, but here, it's also in very real danger of being torn apart.
And yet: For all of its fast-moving, plot-heavy machinations, the series' core group of characters—Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint)—are allowed more humor and heart than they've ever had before, as they try not only to (A) save the world, but also to (B) deal with enough heartache and teen angst to make one think that the secret location of Hogwarts is somewhere in the O.C.
Granted: Half-Prince's plot ignores huge chunks of the book that inspired it, and if you haven't read the books, you're totally boned. But overall, this thing works—it's genuinely moving, funny, creepy, and it captures the soul of Rowling's world and story—which is, as most of the series' other films have proven, no small feat.