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In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the gang at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry enters the molten thick of adolescence. Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves reward them with a film that bubbles and pops with humor and feeling. It flows like fast-moving lava to a climax filled with pyrotechnics. And for once in a summer blockbuster, the fireworks are both emotional and physical. The movie leaves you sated, yet wanting more - just what you want from a series with two entries left to go.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince would be a first-rate fantasy even if the audience weren't invested in the fortunes of boy wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). But viewers will respond with paroxysms of affection for actors who rediscover and freshen their characters as they grow from children to complicated young people.

Radcliffe has been gaining in heroic stature while wearing his authority lightly - here he masters a moral sort of guile.

Watson isn't just a touching, brainy charmer; she's also a game, resilient performer, with quicksilver timing. As Hermione, she pulls off rapid turns of phrase and expression that prove alternately poignant and hilarious, whether she's reacting to Ron's public displays of affection for another girl or to Harry's potions-class success. With the chagrin of a competitor and the disapproval of an ethicist, she looks askance at Harry's dependence on the mysterious annotations in his coursebook by a genius called the Half-Blood Prince.

Best of all, who would have thought Grint would become a comic of Shakespearean proportions? He brings off sequences of unlikely athletic success and amorous silliness that are as delightful and pure as any silent clown's.

Potter continues his quest to stop the Satanic Lord Voldemort from achieving ultimate power and taking magic to the dark side, but the stakes are higher from the start. Death Eaters in the form of jet-black streams of cloud and gas terrorize Muggles as well as magic enemies with startling devastation and impunity; one London bridge really does go spectacularly down.

Director Yates and screenwriter Kloves introduce this entry in the saga with splendid storytelling strokes. (Yates previously made Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; Kloves wrote every Potter film except for that one.) The first section crackles with storybook esprit as they etch the new contours of the battle between Voldemort and his Death Eaters and Potter and his brilliant, enigmatic mentor, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). When Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and the mother of Draco Malfoy slink down an alleyway en route to a secret meeting with Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), it's as if they're doing a Death Eater's tango. Bonham Carter is always fun to watch. She's beautiful when she's crazy-angry - and Bellatrix is always crazy-angry.

On the light side, Dumbledore introduces Harry to former Hogwarts potions professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), a would-be posh wizard who makes a spectacular comic entrance from the coziest corner of a living room. Harry learns that Dumbledore needs Slughorn to reveal what Voldemort told him when the Dark Lord was his student.

Broadbent's Slughorn is the latest joyous, all-out supporting characterization to distinguish the Potter movies (others include Kenneth Branagh in Chamber of Secrets and Imelda Staunton in Order of the Phoenix). He creates a playful 3-D portrait: From one angle, he's an incorrigible name-dropper; from another, he's a decent, ruefully self-aware failure. Dramatically and comedically, he's the exhilarating equivalent of the Weasley twins' Diagon Alley joke and novelty shop.

But the movie percolates nonstop because of the ongoing relationships at its core and the visual and dramatic patterns that burble in and out with wondrous effervescence. Gambon comes through with his subtlest big-screen performance; he and Radcliffe effortlessly embody the bonds of trust and fondness that should exist between growing children and true adult friends. Even when the film puts those bonds to the ultimate test, it never becomes sappy or jarringly melodramatic. The Half-Blood Prince earns every bit of tension and heartbreak.

A central tide of feeling flows out to everyone in the cast, including Maggie Smith and Robbie Coltrane and David Thewlis, who make the most of their few scenes. (Rickman is terrifically cryptic as Snape.) Yates and Kloves understand adolescence as an emotionally fluid time. Yates and his visual team, including his marvelous cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, respond with torrents of liquid imagery. Memory becomes a pool to swim in; mastering it becomes a way of growing up.

Once the filmmakers dispense with all their marvelous scene-setting, they settle into the creation of an endless sea of marvels. Everyone who swims through it - and especially Harry, Ron and Hermione - must master different strokes. With remarkable lucidity, they depict how each character's choices form their personalities. It's no accident, of course, that Voldemort's original name was Tom Riddle. Harry and his friends must struggle to find the riddle to his and their own characters.

After The Half-Blood Prince, you can't wait for them to crack it.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

RATING ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

(Warner Bros.) Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Jim Broadbent. Directed by David Yates. Rated PG. Time 153 minutes.

* The movie opens at midnight tonight at area theaters.

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