I've gotta admit, my title makes it sound as if I'm grumbling about the fact that Harry Potter and his franchise of books and movies is little more than a marketing venture for Scholastic and Warner Brothers. And on one level, that's certainly the case. J.K. Rowling, the author of the books, must drink from diamond champaign flutes and and sit upon a toilet of pure ivory. And Chris Columbus, who directed and executive produced both films, must blow his nose on kleenex made from the finest gold leaf and must use toothpicks whittled from unicorn horns. Even those ungainly children in the cast must enjoy burgers of caviar. And the franchise will continue. There are more books and inevitably more movies on the way. Unless, of course, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets bombs horribly!
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I'm a funny man, aren't I?
But the litmus test is simple and has only a little to do with me: I went to a 4:00 matinee packed with children and leading up to the movie with the shrieking and hair pulling and seat switching, I dreaded trying to ignore distractions to pay attention to the movie. And don't get me wrong, by no means did the crowd shut up once the movie began. I'd be lying if I reported that you could hear a pin drop. But what you could hear were happy laughs, whispers of anticipation, and enthusiastic cheers at crucial moments. The Harry Potter films haven't been made for critics and they *certainly* haven't been made for film snobs.
I have a friend who angrily denounces Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. He's bitter because Terry Gilliam wanted to direct the film and instead the job went to the much less intimidating Columbus (he of Home Alone and Stepmom). And my friend is frustrated that while Columbus basically made a copy of the book, Gilliam would have made a FILM. And my friend is no doubt totally correct. Gilliam would have made a much more "impressive" film and probably would have been much less slavishly devoted to the book. But I remember going to the rest room after the first movie and hearing children expressing joy at the movie, but also expressing reservations about lines of dialogue that had been moved. Not replaced. Not altered in form. But moved. A conversation that took place in a long hallway in the movie was, a young Potter-ite complained, actually in the main dining hall in the book. Goodness!
These movies, thus far, have been made for the children whose love of reading was spiked by these books. And it was made even for the adults who worship the texts as well. It's not like we grown-ups don't complain when our sacred adult texts are slightly tweaked.
So is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets out for a quick buck? Probably. But at least the filmmakers are working to earn their money, realizing that a happily sated child is far more likely to come back for seconds than a child placated with empty calories. And at 160 minutes, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets won't leave anybody feeling ripped off.
[A warning for sticklers... I'm going to misspell things. And I'm going to probably give incorrect names for things. I apologize in advance.]
After the events of the first film, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) may be a hero back at Hogwarts School of Wizardry, but to the Dursleys, he's more of a nuisance than ever. But things get worse for Harry when a house elf named Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones) shows up in his room and warns him that horrible things will happen if he returns to Hogwarts. But given the choice between an unnamed potential threat and his fat aunt, uncle, and cousin, Harry is overjoyed when his best friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) shows up at his window in a flying car to rescue him. The Weasleys are happy to see Harry and they teach him to travel to Diagon Alley via flue powder. In Diagon Alley, Harry is reunited with big loveable gameskeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and his precocious chum Hermione (Emma Watson). As part of the run on meeting people in Diagon Alley, Harry also meets his evil blond nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and Draco's equally evil and more-powerful Muggle-hating father Lucius (Jason Isaacs). And then there's Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), Hogwarts's newest Defense from the Dark Arts teacher, and the rock-star-esque author of Magical Me.
But the problems begin even before getting to Hogwarts, when Ron and Harry can't make it to the magical train platform at the King's Cross station and are forced to the steal the family's flying car to make the trip. While the sniveling Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) wants them expelled, they're kept around thanks to the good faith of Professor McGonagall (Dame Maggie Smith) and Headmaster Dumbledore (the late Richard Harris). But even after their brief reprieve, things go from bad to worse when students start popping up petrified and messages on the walls (written in blood) speak of the opening of the Chamber of Secrets and the heir of Slitherine opening it. Who is that heir of Slitherine? And what evil lurks inside the Chamber? And who the blazes are all of these characters and what's up with all that magic stuff?
Silly Muggle. Unlike the first film, which many critics accused of taking too long with exposition, The Chamber of Secrets assumes a pretty vast amount of knowledge on the part of the viewer, wasting no time with introductions and barely ever reminding the viewer of events from the first film. Columbus and writer Steven Kloves (who also adapted the first movie) figure that with a worldwide box office gross of nearly 1 billion dollars and nearly endless ancillary revenues, few people will arrive at this movie totally cold. What's amusing is that in addition to knowing the characters and terminology, it can be safely guessed that most members of the audience know every plot point before hand. They know how the story begins, what its complications are, and how it ends.
Me, I barely remembered anything, actually. I read the books in a big rush nearly three years ago and believe myself to be part of a healthy majority who found Chamber of Secrets to be the weakest of the four books. By far. It's the last book of the quartet thus far. Things start getting darker and more emotional in the third book and the first book is full of wonderful set-up, but Chamber of Secrets is largely a stand-alone minor dud of an adventure. Some characters and ideas are introduces for future reference, but the overall plot only inches forward.
In their literal adaptation, Kloves and Columbus are stuck with many of the book's major failings. In Chamber of Secrets the central mystery isn't very complicated or involved and as a result, Harry, Ron, and Hermione have to go through a lot of trouble (and time) just to learn basic pieces of information. Take, for example, the month-long process of brewing a potion to briefly transform Harry and Ron into two of Draco's lumbering sidekicks in order to find out what he knows about the Chamber. The answer? Not a heck of a lot. Or the extended scene with a bunch of arachnids deep in the forest? Again, provides only the most minor background information. All too much of the narrative is, instead, explained through a sepia-toned flashback (courtesy of the magical diary of a certain Tom Riddle) and then another flashback towards the end explains everything a second time, as does a lengthy "I'll tell you everything" monologue by the film's main antagonist. Actually, thinking back over how the plot is delivered, this is horrible storytelling (the only time Rowling should be accused of such a flaw).
Thus, it's a pleasant surprise that Columbus manages to improve on the material in his second go-round. Many of the special effects and sets had already been established in the first film and Columbus uses his artistic toys with much more authority. For the first time we're reminded that in addition to his awful background as a director (If Robert Zemekis is a poor man's Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante is a poor man's Robert Zemekis, then Columbus may actually be a poor man's Joe Dante and if you get any poorer, you end up with Raja Gosnell, so heaven help us all), Columbus also once wrote Gremlins and The Goonies. Finally, we get evidence of his sense of slightly grotesque scary fun. There's a hint of a more twisted kind of entertainment here that was lacking in the first film. I loved Dobby the House Elf, who is one of my favorite computer generated characters. But even better are the mandrakes, plants whose roots resemble trolls and who cry when they're plucked from the ground. And I loved the Pixies that Lockhart lets loose on his unsuspecting class. Their gleeful destruction is pure Gremlins.
All of the effects here improve upon The Sorcerer's Stone. In addition to Dobby, there are a variety of less important computer generated characters and creatures. There are thousands of spiders, which may scare small children, but are still good fun for me. And then there's the whomping tree, which captures the Weasley's flying car and, well, whomps it. This is the scariest arboral creation since the evil tree in Poltergeist. The Quiddich match is also much better here, though my grasp of the rules and point of the game becomes diminished with each exposure to it I mean, dude, does a team ever win without catching the snitch? And if not, what's the point of all the other people? Just wondering. Anyway, computer imagery is still far from mastering its depiction of the human form (which has caused problems in both Spider-man and Attack of the Clowns as well), but Columbus covers for the computer's liabilities well. The race for the snitch between Harry and Draco with a rogue blodger after them plays like a fun video game attraction (and it will, I'd guess, feature heavily in the video game).
Production designer Stuart Craig was nominated for an Oscar for his work on The Sorcerer's Stone and deserves another nomination here. The interiors of Hogwarts are the very definition of purposeful busy-ness. In every shot there are five or ten different things to look at, especially in the more cluttered sets like Dumbledore's office and the Weasley home. Cinematographer Roger Pratt replaces John Seale and his confidence allowed Columbus more freedom with the camera than I've ever seen him use before. For the first time in his directorial career there is evidence of though-out compositions and artistically intelligent lighting.
The mature adult component of the cast is, not surprisingly, both under-used and perfect. Genuine treasures like Fiona Shaw and Julie Walters are totally wasted as Harry's evil aunt Petunia Dursely and Ron's kindly mother, while Alan Rickman has even less to do here than in the first film. Rickman's only scene of note is a briefly hilarious "magic duel" with cast newcomer Branagh. Never embarrassed to play the fop, Branagh is a delight with both his verbal and physical affectations. And how fitting is it that in his own classroom, Lockhart has a portrait of himself painting a portrait of himself? Indeed. Coltrane and Smith remain the very embodiment of Hagrid and McGonagall and the dignity that Harris brought to Dumbledore will be sorely missed in future installments (though rumors of Ian McKellan taking the part would ensure that the acting level in the part doesn't diminish). Jason Isaacs brings dazzling menace to Lucius Malfoy and it will be a pleasure to get more of him in the next few films.
The younger actors are another story, unfortunately. Whenever you cast young actors for a series like this, you can't guess what puberty will do to them. None of the three main actors show any real sign of aging gracefully and all seem to be (naturally) maturing at their own paces. Rupert Grint is now vastly larger than his co-stars and his increased size makes his mugging broad comic delivery seem out of place. Children can get away with Grint's kind of playing up to the camera, but on a young adult, it seems desperate. Emma Watson's Hermione is now dwarfed by her peers and it remains to be seen what will happen when she actually begins to develop. She has good timing, but the character is a bit one-note. And Daniel Radcliff is in the middle of growing from a bland, but acceptable child actor to a bland, but acceptable young adult. The problem is that the series is going to require stronger performances from its leads as the stories become darker. That could cause serious trouble.
In the smaller child parts, Shirley Henderson is a very old Moaning Myrtle, but I still enjoyed her interpretation of toilet-haunting spirit. Tom Felton is properly wicked as Draco and as Ginnie, the newest Weasley at Hogwarts, Bonnie Wright is adorable.
The Harry Potter books have never been about deep moralizing. There are the usual lessons about believing in your friends and in yourself and there's now a undercurrent of tolerance for those who aren't exactly like you. Fine messages all, though hardly earth-shattering.
The Sorcerer's Stone caught me up in the joy of watching these characters and places on-screen for the first time and I never felt quite the same emotional swell in The Chamber of Secrets. But the film's technical improvements made it feel like less of a guilt pleasure here. Young children may be scared by this film, though at my screening nobody had to leave crying, which is always a good sign. Instead, families sat together happily and breathlessly for nearly three hours. So if it makes a few bucks? Who am I to get grumpy.
Alfonso Cuaron has already be tapped to direct the next Harry Potter film when it starts filming next year. Best known recently as the director of Y Tu Mama Tambien, Cuaron also directed a magical adaptation of A Little Princess. While Chris Columbus did himself pretty proud with this movie, I look forward to see the personal stamp that Cuaron puts on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when it hits theatres, probably in 2004. Can't Wait!
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