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Film review: Long-awaited 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' fresh, enjoyable

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE — ★★★1/2 — Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson; rated PG (violence, brief gore, vulgarity, slurs, mild profanity, drugs); in general release

Perhaps absence makes the heart grow fonder — it has, after all, been nearly two years since we last saw the Harry Potter cast on the big screen.

Or maybe it's because "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is a better movie overall than its predecessor, 2007's lackluster "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

Whichever reason you prefer, "Half-Blood Prince" feels fresher and looser and is much more enjoyable.

This long-awaited follow-up, based on the sixth of author J.K. Rowling's best-selling fantasy novels, has a better mix of light humor and darker story elements.

It also does a much better job of moving the story along — even if screenwriter Steve Kloves' adaptation takes some liberties with the material.

Also, it should be noted that, while most of the film is family friendly, the violent and disturbing imagery probably should have earned a PG-13 rating.

"Half-Blood Prince" sees our heroes — Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) — starting their sixth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

As always, there's some intrigue. Fellow student Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has apparently entered into some sort of pact with the servants of the Dark Lord, Voldemort.

And there's a new instructor at Hogwarts, potions expert Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). The school's headmaster, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), has asked Harry to see if he can pry some vital information out of the new instructor.

Speaking of the so-called "chosen one," Harry has also come into possession of a potions instruction book that belonged to a "half-blood prince." This helps give him a leg up on his fellow students, and gives him yet another mystery to solve.

A good portion of the story concerns the tricky romantic entanglements of the three main characters, as well.

Hermione is pining for Ron, who's become popular with the ladies (thanks to his unexpected success at Quidditch). And Harry's clearly smitten with Ron's sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright).

The smoother pacing and more exciting actions scenes show that returning director David Yates has grown more confident as a filmmaker.

The younger cast members continue to improve and are more confident, too. Radcliffe and Watson are very good, and as usual, Grint does most of the comic heavy lifting. (He's turning out to be a gifted comedian.)

Veteran British character actor Broadbent ("Inkheart") is a welcome addition, since he can be both silly and serious, depending on what's asked of him.

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is rated PG and features some strong violent action and imagery (sorcerous and creatures attacks, explosive and fiery mayhem, as well as peril moments), brief blood and gore, some mildly vulgar humor and references (bodily functions, as well as some mild innuendo), derogatory language and slurs, scattered mild profanity, and various potions and poisons (some with intoxicating effects). Running time: 153 minutes.