I’ve come to think of this sixth film in the Harry Potter franchise as the one where the young wizard truly begins to grow up. When we last saw Harry in The Order of the Phoenix, he was engaged in war, suffering a great personal loss that would forever rob him of innocence and compassion toward his enemies. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince takes things in a new direction. In the process developing the characters beyond wands and spells, and raising the stakes for everyone involved. As Harry takes his first steps toward the ultimate showdown with his nemesis Voldemort, screenwriter Steve Kloves and director David Yates made the best Potter film yet.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince: UCEAs Harry heads back to Hogwarts for his sixth year, things are very unsettled. Voldemort is becoming more powerful than ever, having recruited followers known as Death Eaters, to find a way to breach the shell of security put around the young wizards in training. We learn early on that they may have found a way: Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), a student whose parents were loyal to Voldemort in the old days, has committed to carry out a dastardly mission of some kind, and the wormy Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) has sworn to assist him. Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), the ancient and kindly headmaster, trusts Snape implicitly. But should he?

Outwardly, Dumbledore has brought in professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) to teach the potions class at Hogwarts. In reality, Slughorn knows something about Voldemort that can help to defeat him, and Dumbledore wants Harry to help find it out. Harry is also tasked with putting a stop to the nefarious plan put forth by Malfoy, his mother and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). Our hero has a lot to do; he has to find Dumbledore’s would-be assassin, deal with his feelings for Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright), determine where Professor Snape’s (Alan Rickman) loyalties lie, help Hermione come to terms with her attraction to Ron, and save Ron from a pack of girls and a deadly poison.

In the midst of all this, Harry finds a textbook in advanced potions-making containing answers to complex spells written in the margin by one of the book’s previous owners known only as “The Half-Blood Prince.” Who is The Half-Blood Prince? It’s just one more question added to the mix.

There isn’t time for a lot of fun and games anymore; the pressures on Harry are mounting. As if he didn’t have enough to worry about, the later part of the film introduces us to something called a Horcrux, a device used by Dark Wizards to extend life even unto immortality. Even more troubling, it seems Voldemort has hidden several of these Horcruxes, which, if he reacquires them, will enable him to become the most-powerful Wizard on the planet. Obviously, that would spell disaster for Harry and the rest of the gang at Hogwarts.

Though David Yates was primarily a television director with obscure credits to his name, with Order of the Phoenix he proved he was the perfect person to take the Potter series to a new level. While he maintains the fantastical feel of previous entries, it also contains more humor and character developments than the previous offerings. Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves have actually injected a bit of reality into a world that prides itself on fantasy. More importantly, Harry Potter has finally grown up and it’s clear we are headed for a startling conclusion.

For the Ultimate Collector’s Edition, we get the same transfer as the earlier Blu-ray release. A solid 1080p/VC-1 transfer, color is often absent from the palette, but the washed hues and inky blacks remain are nicely rendered. Contrast remains consistent, and delineation is always clear and revealing. Detail is nothing short of amazing. Textures are crisp and refined, object definition is sharp, and every instance of softness should be attributed to the filmmakers’ intentions. Whether it’s a collapsing bridge in the middle of a city, or an underground cavern swirling with the flames of a fallen wizard, each shot and scene looks exceptional. Artifacting, crush, smearing, aliasing, and ringing aren’t a problem, and the two issues that do distract — a hint of white-flecked source noise dots a decades-old encounter between Professor Slughorn and a young Tom Riddle, and nearly unnoticeable banding pops up in two scenes filled with steam and smoke–are short-lived and largely negligible.

The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track is excellent. The soundtrack uses the surrounds carefully, introducing small, unobtrusive noises into the soundscape like the twitter of birds, and the breeze through the castle towers, accompanied by the flourishes in composer Nicholas Hooper’s score. Even though the midrange comes across a tad bright and forward, with the bass often oddly absent and the accompanying sonic effects occasionally overpowering the dialogue, these are minor drawbacks in an otherwise refined, evocative audio track.

Some of the special features seen here are repeated from the earlier Blu-ray release. Nonetheless, three are a number of special features included here that should make Harry Potter fans very pleased.

In terms of the packaging, the Half-Blood Prince Ultimate Edition is housed in an attractive oversized box similar in size and design to the UE releases of The Prisoner of Azkaban, The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix. It swaps out a digital copy disc for an online authorization code and the box slides into a two-tier, side-access lenticular slipcover. Inside is a sturdy inner box, a 2-disc DigiPak with BD discs, a 48-page hardcover book with rare photographs and images, two character cards (Draco Malfoy and Albus Dumbledore), an authorization code for an iTunes or Windows Media standard definition digital copy of the film (that expires in June of 2012), and an offer for a free Deathly Hallows key chain at NobleCollection.com (purchase required).

  • Maximum Movie Mode (Disc 1, HD, 154 minutes): The Maximum Movie Mode is a Picture-in-Picture track. Loaded with animatics, special effects breakdowns, production stills, scene comparisons, concept art, interview segments, and accessible Focus Point featurettes, it’s a very extensive piece. As an added perk, tapping the directional pad on your remote allows you to leap through the track, skipping gaps where no features appear.
  • Focus Points (Disc 1, HD, 38 minutes): The Maximum Movie Mode’s fourteen Focus Point featurettes can also be accessed from the main menu. Segments include “The Millennium Bridge,” “Shooting on Location,” “Professor Slughorn,” “Building Relationships,” “Director David Yates Returns,” “Wool’s Orphanage,” “Ron and Lavender’s Kiss,” “The Burrow,” “Harry and Ginny’s Kiss,” “Aragog Returns,” “Creating the Cave,” “Designing the Virtual Cave Environment,” “The Inferi,” and “The Underwater Sequence.”
  • Creating the World of Harry Potter Part 6: Magical Effects (Disc 2, HD, 64 minutes): is This is an excellent piece, delving into every aspect of the films’ effects from their development to their implementation to the changes they’ve undergone over the course of the saga’s production. Nearly every key member of the cast and crew, new and old, take viewers behind the computers, into the digital world of Harry Potter, to examine the practical tricks-of-the-trade, clever innovations and CG spell-casting that transformed some of the series’ biggest scenes.
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Behind the Magic (Disc 2, SD, 47 minutes): Also making its Blu-ray debut is “Behind the Magic,” a secondary television special hosted by Ben Shephard that goes behind-the-scenes of The Half-Blood Prince. Brimming with cast and crew interviews, production insights and on-set, mid-shoot tours.
  • Additional Footage (Disc 2, HD, 7 minutes): Eight brief deleted scenes, none of which fizzle and most of which should have been retained in the final. Moreover, each one is being presented in high definition for the first time.
  • Interstitials (Disc 2, SD, 5 minutes): The Half-Blood Prince interstitials are a collection of quick-hit promos for the film, nothing more. Segments include “The Story,” “Love is in the Air,” “Meet Professor Slughorn,” “The Story of Tom Riddle” and “Comedy.”
  • J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life (Disc 2, HD, 50 minutes): This revealing documentary about Rowling and her craft opens with a spoiler warning, and for good reason. It plows through the whole of the Potter saga, including its ultimate conclusion, and investigates the woman who brought it all to life.
  • Close-Up with the Cast of Harry Potter (Disc 2, HD, 29 minutes): A series of eight additional featurettes in which key members of the cast explore various production departments. Daniel Radcliffe sits down with editor Mark Day for a chat about editing; Matthew Lewis, Oliver Phelps, and Tom Felton learn about special effects from FX supervisor John Richardson; Jessie Cave meets owl trainer Guillaume Grange; Rupert Grint spends time with the stunt department; Evanna Lynch discusses jewelry with costume designer Jany Temime; Bonnie Wright visits graphic designer Eduardo Lima to talk about props and set design; James Phelps earns his wings as an assistant director; and Emma Watson has a spirited conversation with makeup designer Amanda Knight.
  • One-Minute Drills (Disc 2, HD, 7 minutes): Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, James and Oliver Phelps, Bonnie Wright, and Tom Felton are each given one minute or less to recount their character’s entire, six-film storyline.
  • What’s On Your Mind? (Disc 2, HD, 7 minutes): Tom Fulton interviews his fellow actors with rapidfire questions aimed at soliciting one or two-word answers.
  • The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Disc 2, HD, 12 minutes): A sneak peek at the Potter attraction being built at the Universal Orlando Resort in Florida.
  • First Footage from The Deathly Hallows (Disc 2, HD, 2 minutes): Though outdated at this point, completists will nevertheless appreciate this early sneak peek’s inclusion.
  • Theatrical Trailers (Disc 2, HD, 8 minutes): Four trailers round out the package.