See more, hear more, feel more!" goes the IMAX motto, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which opened Wednesday at the Maryland Science Center, fulfills that promise on every score. For once with a live-action blockbuster, the super-sharp imagery and engulfing sound of this deluxe form of presentation (short for MAXIMUM IMAGE, but with equally enhanced audio) proves just as effective at immersing viewers in an experience as at popping their eyes with spectacle.
The Half-Blood Prince does both. The IMAX version starts with a digital 3-D rendering of the opening reel, in which Death Eaters take the form of swooping jets of black smoke and destroy London's Millennium Bridge. Their attack in 3-D is so immediate you imagine that you're feeling the turbulence on your skin as they whoosh by. In several quieter scenes, some of the 3-D pictures looked soft or marred by photographic halos. But these flaws pale before the thrilling virtues of seeing the Weasley Brothers' Joke and Novelty Shop in Diagon Alley come off as a three-ring circus squeezed into one brick building.
When the 3-D went away, the IMAX format proved ideal for fulfilling the desire of director David Yates to make Potter's alternate universe richer and even more magical by rooting every wonder in character. The film is chock-full of special effects that enhance personality and further the plot. They make you feel part of what passes for the everyday at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
This saga brilliantly revives elemental images of death's head clouds and unholy combinations of fire and water. But it also uses exquisite and funny grace notes to externalize the giddiness, sadness and risk of acquiring wisdom and growing up. A sculptured owl spreads its wings at a lectern. A severed rat's tail moves with startling vitality at the close of a potions class. A tiny Frosty the Snowman skates over a white cake at the Weasleys' house - and teens and adults alike are too mired in worry to notice.
With IMAX sound, Jim Broadbent's performance as the upwardly mobile potions professor, Horace Slughorn, is even more hilarious and moving. He sets your ears tingling with his wheezing neediness as he puts on airs. The film's sound track is alive because it keys you to the characters' speech patterns and resists musical crescendos.
Without any pre-Potter background as an action moviemaker, Yates has mastered the trick to every great action set piece: You must put the audience inside the action to evoke an emotional response. The Quidditch scenes in The Half-Blood Prince are the funniest and most thrilling in the series because Yates never loses focus on Ron Weasley's insecurity as a Keeper.
And the moviemakers don't abandon their love for inventive detail-work even in the biggest sequences. Eccentric Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) shows up for the Big Game wearing a lion's-head costume - and on the super-sized IMAX screen the moment when the lion's-head eyes blink earns a thunderous laugh.
At a Wednesday afternoon showing, the sensitivity and clarity of the IMAX system occasionally backfired. Perhaps because of an imperfect print, speckles and blotches swiftly appeared and disappeared on screen, giving the kids quick cases of acne and afflicting the landscapes with sudden swarms of gnats. Yet the gain in excitement that IMAX provides to the film's original strokes (such as a Death Eater surprise attack midway through) and the expanded sense it gives the audience of entering a supernatural environment, make any complaints seem niggling.
At the end, Harry says he never appreciated just how beautiful Hogwarts is. You won't, either, until you see The Half-Blood Prince in IMAX.