''Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'' finally hits the big screen -- What's in store for the band of teenage wizards

By Jeff Jensen
Updated July 10, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

Daniel Radcliffe sits on the edge of his old bed, overwhelmed by nostalgia for a childhood now gone. It’s a late-June evening in London, and the 19-year-old actor has just had dinner at his parents’ house following a day of work on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last movie Radcliffe will ever make as the boy wizard. Soon he’ll head to his own place (yep: Harry Potter has a bachelor pad), but first there’s a journalist to chat with by phone…right after he grieves over the realization that his parents have turned his room into a guest room. ”It’s weird knowing other people have slept in your bed. It’s like your room has had an affair,” he says. ”Everywhere I look triggers off another memory. That’s basically what watching the Harry Potter movies is like for me, too. Albums of memory. Anyway. What were we talking about again?”

Actually, we were talking about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the film adapted from the sixth novel in J.K. Rowling’s seven-volume series, which is due in theaters July 15. Last August, Warner Bros. abruptly decided to bump the film from its scheduled Nov. 21 release date to this summer — irking Potterphiles worldwide (and turning EW’s Fall Movie Preview cover story into a, uh, collector’s item). Today the Potter clan is so immersed in shooting the two-part epic that will be Deathly Hallows that trying to recall Half-Blood Prince is, in the words of director David Yates, ”a wee bit trippy.” For Radcliffe, this ”album of memory” is something of a blur: ”I remember working with Jim Broadbent. That was great fun. Otherwise, the movie’s all about…um…uh…”

How about young love run amok? Secret missions? Impending war? Half-Blood Prince finds Harry juggling his usual schoolwork while investigating a sinister scheme involving bully Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and playing spy for Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). His task: coaxing Hogwarts’ newest teacher, the haunted Horace Slughorn (Broadbent), to spill a crucial secret from Voldemort’s school days. At the same time, Cupid is slinging arrows everywhere, hitting Harry and his BFFs Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) and disrupting their tight friendship. Oh, and someone of monumental significance dies at the end, too. ”What I love about the movie is that it has many different parts — comedy, romance, suspense, good versus evil — but it also sets up the final chapter that is Deathly Hallows,” says producer David Heyman. ”It really is the beginning of the end.”

Most Hollywood insiders expect Half-Blood Prince to be one of the year’s biggest hits, and for good reason. No previous installment has grossed less than $249 million domestically and $795 million globally, and the PG rating — the past two films have been PG-13 — is likely to attract the lucrative family market. Yet while this Potter exhibits all the polish and craft the franchise is known for (paid for with a lot of Gringotts gold: a reported $250 million), it’s the first to be shot and released after the buzz of the Potter publishing phenomenon had faded. The last film, the well-reviewed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was released two years ago amid breathless anticipation for Rowling’s last novel and went on to become the second-biggest Potter film ever. Moreover, it’ll be interesting to see how Half-Blood Prince‘s brand of innocent young romance will play with youngsters smitten by the neo-goth sexiness of Potter’s apparent successor, Twilight. (”Oh, I knew you were going to bring that up,” ribs Watson, who admits to having gobbled up all four books after a friend turned her on to them last year. ”I mean, I wouldn’t say I was one of the psycho fans. Absolute madness, that phenomenon, isn’t it?”)

And yet a five-film winning streak has clearly emboldened Team Potter. Asked if he’s worried about Half-Blood Prince‘s prospects and pop relevance now that all the books are finished and all their secrets are known or knowable, Heyman takes a long moment and offers a one-word response: ”No.”