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Deconstructing Harry


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Chris Columbus, USA/UK, 2002

Rating: 3.0



Posted: November 19, 2002

By Steve Wallace, Contributing Writer

The vibrations shake your bones. The steam clouds blur your vision; the piercing whistles shatter your eardrums. Yes, the Hogwarts Express, that seemingly unstoppable multi-media juggernaut, has returned to steamroll us all into pop-cultural submission, at least until the opening of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. But what's that other, louder sound? Why, that's the ringing of the cash register, of course. Last year's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the first installment of J.K. Rowling's -children's-series-turned-movie-mega-franchise, nabbed the second most lucrative three-day opening weekend ever, earning a cool $90.3 million. This year's installment, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, lags just a tad bit behind in terms of initial earnings (raking in a not-to-be-sneezed at $87.7 million its first weekend), but it is conversely, slightly superior to its predecessor in terms of quality.

For anyone unfamiliar with the franchise (and come on, that's a club whose members at this point can include only scientific researchers stationed in the Antarctic, comatose amnesiacs and wildebeests frolicking on the plains of the Serengeti), Rowling's stories center around a young, magical boy named Harry Potter, who's been raised by his unloving, non-magical (Muggle) relatives after being orphaned in his infancy. In that inaugural film adaptation of Rowling's planned seven-book series, Harry discovered his magical heritage and went away to The Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft to study the magic arts; he made new friends, he had adventures, he saved the day, and then he returned home for summer vacation.

Things aren't quite so cut-and-dried in this first sequel. For one thing, although the original cast returns intact, it's sadly for the last time. Richard Harris, the kindly schoolmaster Dumbledore, recently passed away, and star Daniel Radcliff (the boy hero himself, no less!) has apparently begun a radical, body-altering pubescent growth spurt that could soon render him all wrong for the role (although he's adequate here as Harry). Likewise, Chris Columbus (Home Alone), who helms Secrets in the same workmanlike manner he controlled Sorcerer's Stone, will soon yield the director's chair to Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien). One hopes that amid all this turmoil, the other staples -- Maggie Smith (charming yet stern as Professor McGonagall), Alan Rickman (the cold-hearted Snape), Robbie Coltrane (well-meaning Hagrid), Rupert Grint and Emma Watson (Harry's cronies Ron and Hermione, respectively) -- will get the opportunity to reprise their roles; they, at least, have earned it.

As Secrets opens, Harry has been suffering through summer break, having been starved and abused all summer by the Dursleys, when he's visited by Dobby, a doting, digitally-rendered house elf, who claims to have knowledge of an evil scheme planned for Hogwarts, and is intent on keeping Harry safe. So intent, in fact, that concocts a series of disastrous "accidents" designed to ensure Harry's safety by forcing him to stay home.

But of course, Harry eventually makes it to school, where a deadly monster, locked away in a secret chamber, has been released and is prowling the hallways of Hogwarts. Students and staff are being petrified left and right, and unless someone figures out where the creature's lair is and how to stop it, Hogwarts itself may be forced to close. Along the way, there's trouble from Harry's arch-rival Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), his bigoted father Lucius (Jason Isaacs), the well-meaning Dobby and a whole forest of nasty spiders. Further adding to the confusion (and the fun) is the presence of the new Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor; Kenneth Brannagh hits one of Secrets' indelible high points as the totally irrepressible, wildly egotistical, and wholly incompetent Gilderoy Lockhart. (Sadly, Hogwarts burns through Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers like Spinal Tap goes through drummers, so we won't be seeing more Brannagh in future installments).

For all that behind-the-scenes upheaval, Secrets is unquestionably a more mature work than its predecessor. Harry and his crew are a little older, a little wiser, a little more magically competent. The monsters and problems they face are likewise a little creepier and darker (especially if you suffer arachnophobia). The actors themselves are perhaps a little more self-assured, and seem to have developed a good working chemistry.

There's also more emphasis on special effects: the producers made a point to film many of the more intensive CG scenes early on, to allow plenty of time for the effects crews to work on them. That strategy pays off in scenes like the Quidditch match where banners and capes do a lot more flapping and waving than in the first film; there's even an extended chase sequence among the wooden supports of the viewing stand reminiscent of the Death Star trench run in Star Wars. Then there's the Whompin' Willow, a flying car and all those giant spiders. Good times.

But not surprisingly, it's house elf Dobby who proves the film's most ambitious CGI effort. An artificially rendered digital character along the lines of one of that Lucas guy's creations; Dobby has several important scenes interacting with live action characters. As a rule, the more human-like the digital character, the more difficult the illusion is to pull off. Factor in the fact that the CG character is standing alongside real human beings for comparison, and you've got a situation where the animators needed to be perfect to pull it off convincingly. It's a bit of a gamble, and one that doesn't fully pay off.

Dobby does manage some amusing actions, and at times makes fluid movements displaying real personality quirks, but he often seems to lack proper weight when walking around, doesn't always cast shadows where he should, and his facial movements are a bit stiff when speaking. Dobby's flaws often distract from the suspension of disbelief necessary for the whole movie.

The main trouble with Secrets, however, isn't Dobby; it's the book from which he sprang. The desire to include so many elements and plot points from such a large written work leaves the filmic narrative a bit choppy, at the expense of such elements as the evil diary and the enigmatic Tom Riddle (Christian Coulson). As it is, the film's villain doesn't even make his appearance until two-thirds of the way through. And the deus ex machina arrival of Fawks the Phoenix in the finale is, frankly, ridiculous. It's in the book, though, so it's on the screen too.

The bottom line in a Harry Potter film is the magical childlike ride, however, and not the deep, cathartic, soul-searching plot (hate to disillusion some of the so-called "adult" fans of the series, but this ain't high art we're dealing with here). Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets manages genuine moments of childlike wonder as Harry discovers what the world is really like (didn't the real world seem magical when you were a kid and everything was new?), along with those key terrifying moments of realization that the world is just plain bigger than he is and often out of his control. All this and he gets to be the hero in the end. Isn't that what coming of age stories are all about?

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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