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'Half-Blood Prince' will satisfy diehards, but not the rest

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE

(PG) ** out of 4 stars

After breaking the stylistic holding pattern established in the first four "Harry Potter" movies with "Order of the Phoenix," director David Yates returns with a less fulfilling "Half-Blood Prince." It's not all Yates' fault; the "HBP" book was the sixth in the series and acted primarily as the uneventful bridge to author J.K. Rowling's ho-hum seventh and final novel, which will be adapted into two movies.

With not much to say and given far too much time to do so, Yates does his best to at least make the film look good. Every frame of the movie is handsomely mounted, richly-hued and goes far in deflecting our attention away from the largely inert plot.

Opening with a jaw-dropping action sequence featuring three followers of Lord Voldemort cutting a destructive swath through Muggle-inhabited England, the narrative jarringly changes pace and becomes "High School Musical" minus the song-and-dance numbers.

In his fifth "Potter" screenplay, writer Steve Kloves regularly wanders away from the sorcery and into the romantic lives of the three teen leads. Oddly, the weakest of the bunch is the one involving Harry, (Daniel Radcliffe) who considers two barely seen candidates. The bulk of the time is devoted by Kloves to the still-percolating, non-coupling between Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) and their two possible third-wheel spoilers.

This facet of the story is charming in its own clumsy and modest way and brings with it hefty doses of unneeded comic relief, but seems firmly out of place in a franchise that is so deathly serious and self-aware.

Equally dissatisfying is the reestablished relationship between Harry and original mentor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), who suffered through a falling out in the last installment. Rather than offering his traditional sage advice, Dumbledore calls on Harry to be a spy of sorts and it flies directly in the face of both characters' established traits.

Another missed opportunity involves the telling of the back story of Voldemort, portrayed by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin (the nephew of Ralph Fiennes, who played the adult version of the character in two previous installments) and Frank Dillane, the son of actor Stephen Dillane.

Recruited by Dumbledore to attend the Hogwarts School, it became clear early on that Voldemort - then known as Tom Riddle - was leaning heavily toward the dark side. A near-perfect set of introductory flashback scenes are left unrealized and twisting in the wind.

Kloves redeems himself somewhat with an ominous subplot involving Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and Professor Snape (Alan Rickman). Both characters appear to be shifting their allegiances, and to the filmmakers' credit, they wait until as late as possible in making their final reveals.

Rickman fans will be glad to hear that Snape is given the most screen time since the first installment and is by far the most interesting character in the film. Appearing far more physically and mentally mature than his 21 years would suggest, Felton makes for an imposing villain and would be a perfect evil foil in any future James Bond production.

The hardcore "Potter" faithful will find much to nitpick with here as huge chunks of mostly superfluous subplot has been excised, but they'll still go and they'll still love it. In their eyes, any "Potter" movie is a reason for celebration, no matter what its shortcomings.

Those who can take or leave the franchise should elect to bail on it this time out. Like a bright and shiny fish lure, the movie provides momentary fascination, but eventually collapses under the weight of its own nothingness.

The movie is also available in the IMAX format now showing at the Mall of Georgia in Buford (www.regalcinemas.com). (Warner Brothers)