Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
FILM REVIEW: HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS
By Mark Caro
Chicago Tribune Movie Writer
Entering the world of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is like returning to a wondrous summer camp after a year's break. You see old friends, meet some new ones, and you're reminded of the magical appeal of a place far away from home. Only after becoming acclimated do you notice what bugs you.
Last year's first entry in the Potter movie series, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," may not have exceeded J.K. Rowling's book, but it gave a good taste of what made the material special. Rowling's vision is so richly conceived with wizards secretly inhabiting Muggles' (non-magical folk) society and attending a gothic English countryside school called Hogwarts that director Chris Columbus and writer Steve Kloves aimed primarily to translate it to the screen with reverence.
The first movie excelled as you shared 11-year-old orphan Harry's sense of discovery of a fantastic world and his own wizard powers. It eventually bogged down in plot, never quite achieving a magic it could call its own.
The same could be said of Movie No. 2, except this one has more plot. "Chamber of Secrets" is a hoot early on, when Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), now 12, is rescued from his mean Muggle relatives, the Dursleys, by best friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Ron's older brothers Fred and George (James and Oliver Phelps) in their dad's enchanted flying car.
We're also happy to be reintroduced to Harry and Ron's brainy pal Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and the colorful array of Hogwarts authority figures (Richard Harris' wise headmaster Dumbledore; Alan Rickman's sneering Professor Snape; Maggie Smith's kind, sharp Professor McGonagall; Robbie Coltrane's warm, awfully big Hagrid).
In addition, we meet Dobby, a house elf who appears in Harry's room at the Dursleys' to warn him of a plot to kill him at Hogwarts. Dobby is annoying by design, so obsequious that he bangs his head against furniture at the mere prospect of giving Harry offense yet so aggressive that he'll injure Harry to get him away from Hogwarts.
Dobby is computer generated, with that characteristic rubbery texture that makes so many such characters seem inorganic. It's hard to watch Dobby and not be thinking of special effects, as is true of an action scene involving giant spiders.
A far more entertaining addition is Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart, Hogwarts' new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. He's a preening, grinning self-promoter who dispenses autographs and tall tales with equal enthusiasm, all while animated images of Lockhart look on admiringly from book covers and posters. Branagh is perfectly cast, nailing Lockhart's unctuousness while, as some of the actor's British critics have been keen to point out, sending up his own early self-aggrandizing reputation.
The scenes with Lockhart are the closest this movie series has come to capturing Rowling's cheeky humor. This is one of the two major problems with these Columbus-directed films: The books are far funnier.
Columbus and his collaborators have maintained the British flavor of the cast and settings, but they miss the characteristic dry wit. You turn each page of Rowling's prose in anticipation of what fantastic creature, wryly observed detail or sarcastic comment awaits you.
The first hour of "Chamber of Secrets" contains its fun surprises, such as the plants known as Mandrakes, whose roots shriek like hellish babies; or the "Howler" letter that chews out Ron on his mother's behalf; or the Cornish pixies that fly amok in Columbus' apparent ode to his first produced screenplay, "Gremlins."
But the movie is two hours and 41 minutes long, and the humor rarely extends into the second half or beyond the set pieces. More often we're prompted to share the awestruck expressions of the young actors.
This brings us to the other big problem: Harry lacks spunk. In the books he's a good kid but also mischievous. Circumstances may drive Harry and Ron to violate wizard code and fly the Weasley car to Hogwarts, but they're obviously excited by the prospect. Not so in the movie, where Harry remains a duty-first lad who derives little enjoyment from rule-breaking. Radcliffe may be proving himself an overly earnest Harry, but the director and writer are likely more responsible for their child actors' tone.
Grint remains a likable Ron, though he's a less polished actor than Radcliffe; his scared takes seem modeled on Jackie Chan's. Watson, who practically walked off with the first movie, makes somewhat less of an impression here as Hermione's role is reduced in this story.
"Chamber of Secrets" tackles some darker themes than its predecessor. Our heroes experience ugly prejudice as the unknown villain or monster targets Mudbloods, the derogatory term for wizards born of Muggle parents, like Hermione.
Nevertheless, "Chamber of Secrets" is the weakest of the four Potter books in print. It echoes the first novel in its structure and dungeon-set climax while it skimps on life at Hogwarts and packs less emotional punch.
Columbus makes some improvements over the first movie he tones down John Williams' score and gives the Quidditch match more zip but he doesn't compensate for this book's flaws. The many characters are given no room to develop, and Hogwarts barely feels lived in, with the inter-house competition forgotten by the end. When the movie turns serious, it drags, culminating in a battle that relies too heavily on legendary creatures.
Columbus also indulges in one of those shamelessly corny curtain calls in which our heroes are shown basking in seemingly endless applause from their schoolmates and, presumably, from us.
"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is more plot and less discovery than the first movie an equation I'd prefer in reverse. It remains an expertly assembled companion piece to its source material, with charms you can't overlook. But the great Harry Potter should be casting a more powerful spell.
"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"
Directed by Chris Columbus; written by Steve Kloves; based on the novel by J.K. Rowling; photographed by Roger Pratt; edited by Peter Honess; production designed by Stuart Craig; music by John Williams; produced by David Heyman. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday, Nov. 15. Running time: 2:41. MPAA rating: PG (scary moments, some creature violence and mild language).
Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe
Ron Weasley Rupert Grint
Hermoine Granger Emma Watson
Gilderoy Lockhart Kenneth Branagh
Severus Snape Alan Rickman
Minerva McGonagall Maggie Smith
Albus Dumbledore Richard Harris