Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opens Wednesday throughout the Triangle

During the heyday of James Bond films, it seemed that every successive 007 movie was tagged as “the biggest Bond of all.” Similarly, the main question of each new entry in the Harry Potter saga is whether it is the “most mature” or “darkest” Potter film yet.

While devotees may prefer the childlike charm of the two Chris Columbus offerings, the visual skillfulness in Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban or the post-9/11 zeitgeist of Order of the Phoenix, the truth is that differentiating between any two Potter films is rather like choosing between Wonder Bread or Sunbeam: Each is satisfying, but they’re both just white bread.

Until now. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince not only dramatically distinguishes itself from its forerunners, but also validates the series as a whole. In the able hands of returning director David Yates, this is the funniest, most visually sublime and, yes, darkest addition to the Potter canon. The audience is taken in from the opening shot, in which Harry, now trumpeted as the new “chosen one,” is caught in the crosshairs of a bank of media cameras, shielded only by his mentor, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon).

More than any other, this Potter film grasps the fact that the series’ true magic rests not in passageways, potions and periphrastic spells, but in the relationships between the characters. Of course, there is the seminal trio of Harry, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, now steeped squarely in the hormonal whims of adolescent angst. Indeed, at various points during the Quidditch matches, the flying broomsticks straddled by competitors vying for the affections of female onlookers conspicuously assume a phallic form.

Virtually the entire film is pitch-perfect, from the pacing to the visual effects to the best ensemble acting thus far in the series. In the roles they’ve played since their preteens, Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Emma Watson as Hermione and Rupert Grint as Weasley have matured as actors along with their characters. Gambon has made us forget Richard Harris. Tom Felton shines in an increased role for Draco Malfoy. And Jim Broadbent steals the movie as the dotty yet haunted Professor Slughorn.

The real star of Half-Blood Prince, however, is Yates, an experienced television director who is already tabbed to adapt Rowling’s final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Yates has taken hold of the franchise reins so firmly that he is comfortable imprinting it with his own filmmaking style while also being given license to avoid slavishly following J.K. Rowling’s literary blueprint. The happy result is a Harry Potter film that not only stands alone, but one you’d want to see again. That might be the most amazing magic trick of all.