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Harry Potter is back and I was expecting something grand. As the second film in the series, this one is now free from the necessities of character introduction to spend its time more wisely exploring the people and worlds the first movie went through so much trouble to firmly establish. Like they were before, characters are the Chamber of Secrets strength, but Columbus demonstrates exactly why we should all be happy the next installment will be directed by someone else.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets picks up right at the beginning of Harry’s (Daniel Radcliffe) next school year, with Harry once again locked away in the home of his ill-tempered, wizard-hating Aunt and Uncle. If unlike me you’ve read the book, you’ll probably be bored by this explanation, but Harry once again finds a way out of his hellish home and rockets to Hogwarts for another semester of wizard and witchcraft learning. As before, nothing goes the way it should, and Harry and his two chums Ron (Rupert Grint) and the interminably cute Hermione (Emma Watson) quickly find themselves involved in a deadly game to save themselves and the school from the powers of the dark arts.
In some ways, it almost feels like Chamber of Secrets really has nothing new to offer. It’s basically the same formula without some of the wonder and surprise attached to our initial introductions to these characters. As before, there’s the usual conflict between Harry and his spoiled arch rival Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). Draco has gotten even more annoying. What was once a portrayal of a bratty, jealous minded Richie-Rich has turned into almost a caricature of every adolescent punk you’ve ever seen. This time a little of the focus is taken off Draco however, as his father Lucious (Jason Isaacs) steps into the picture to further accost young Harry and spread thick helpings of cliché, wealthy, bad-guy behavior around.
Again too, Harry ends up involved in things way over his head, figuring out painfully obvious mysteries which any of the so-called competent adult wizards ought to have already in some way figured out. Harry himself is again built up as some uber-scary talent, yet he still succeeds mainly through dumb luck with little to recommend him as a hero beyond that. Young Daniel Radcliffe is certainly capable in the role, but Harry himself is just never drawn as all that interesting a figure.
This is especially evident in comparison to his two companions, Hermione and Ron, both of whom come off as easily more movie-worthy than the saccharinely bland figure of Harry Potter. Can we all just stop a moment and marvel at how much little Emma Watson LEAPS off the screen? So often child actors are simply automatons that go where they’re pointed. But both Watson, and Rubert Grint, who plays Ron Weasley are electric! Watching them grow just from one film to the next has already been a joy. If nothing else, I look forward to the next Potter installment just to see what those two become.
The real problem is simply that Director Chris Columbus has done nothing to fix any of the minor flaws that weighed down the first film. He’s simply too tied to his source material, or to unwilling to take chances, or just lacking in vision. Whatever the case, even more than did The Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets often lags and seems overly scripted when it should most be soaring on the wings of adventure. Columbus seems more concerned with covering a set number of scenes, of jogging from one set piece to the next, than with telling an interesting, and heartfelt story.
The really annoying thing is, that the potential for more is there. It’s easy to see these are deep and interesting characters. Beyond the kids, this is a cast of amazingly gifted actors! But even the likes of Dame Maggie Smith and the late Richard Harris come off as almost throwaway, despite having MUCH larger roles in this film. At least Alan Rickman again makes a wonderful impression. The guy eats up his role! Give me an hour and I could write a book on why what he’s doing with Professor Snape is sheer brilliance! Just standing there staring he says more than any of the others do in an hour of running about and yammering about silly games. You’re never sure what he’s thinking. Each moment with Snape is a walk on the edge, a hairline of hidden intentions in which you’re never quite sure whose side Snape is actually on.
I don’t mean to nitpick, but on the whole, the thing just doesn’t have umpf. In the previous film, some of that was covered up by the simple WONDER and MAJESTY of seeing all this for the first time. Discovery is a powerful and wondrous thing! Sorcer’s Stone was an introduction, everything was new and glowing and surprising to behold. Sure, maybe it was a bit empty in spots, but seeing all that for the first time was entertainment in itself. This is the second time around and all that wonder and amazement associated with out first introduction to Potter is gone, as we’re revisiting things we’ve already seen and already know.
If he wasn’t going to give this thing more life, more emotion, Columbus needed to at least find a way to recapture that sort of wide-eyed wonder that helped carry the first film. Instead, he’s tried to make it darker and more muted, befitting, I’m told, the tone of the book itself. I say tried, because there really isn’t all that much different from the last, except perhaps there’s less bright and cheery lighting about. Oh some students get petrified and a cat gets hung up by it’s tail, but I don’t really see anything to make me think this is somehow the darker and more moody film that Columbus was going for. Instead, the wonder and magic of the series is only half there, with only a few scant sequences to really make your eyes pop out.
The exceptions to this are few but fun. There’s some great eye candy for instance, involving a flying car, that is nearly as thrilling as that first Quidditch match in Harry Potter #1. This time around the Quidditch seems a trifle old hat, but the car fills in nicely instead. Then there are some quirky bits involving Ron and his malfunctioning magic wand, which he cannot afford to replace. Though even there one has to question why his gold-rich friend Harry Potter doesn’t just make things easier for him and buy a new one. Yet again on the positive, their venture into the Dark Forest is actually SCARY this time. At last we get a real clue as to why it’s such a horrendously BAD idea to wander in there.
New characters thrown into the mix are also capably done. Dobby the House Elf adds some unexpected and needed touches of light-hearted humor. His habit for bashing himself about the head reminded me of the best traditions of Warner Brothers, without snapping out of reality into the realm of the cartoony. Sure, he’s entirely CGI, and obviously so. But he fits well enough into what’s going on around him to make the best of things. Even new blood like Kenneth Branagh, in his fairly large role, does his best to keep things lively and interesting, ever mindful of the task with which he has been burdened. Honestly, I’m still not sure what purpose his character is supposed to serve within the framework of the story, but as far as egomaniacal, celebrity, wizards go Branagh makes him an interesting run at it.
Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid, who was actually one of the highlights of the first film, is generally absent throughout this adventure. When he does appear, he’s underused and generally overlooked. The only time we really get much play out of his character is in the final sequence, a silly wrap up celebration which frankly the entire film would have been better off without anyway. It’s altogether to self-congratulatory and basically unneeded. We already know how things turn out; do we really need a recap scene to tell us what we’ve just seen? No thanks! Not even as an excuse to work an emotional moment with Hagrid back in.
The best that can be said about Harry Potter is that it really is a film for children and should be reviewed as such. Kids will get a kick out of another Potter adventure and since they re-hired Columbus; I have to assume that’s the only thing the Harry Potter people were going for. Fans of the books may have been hoping for something more… maybe they’ll find it here. But as someone interested in seeing a real cinematic masterpiece made out of this thing, I have to wish that Columbus and his crew had been willing to take more risks during their time with Harry Potter. Now the franchise moves into the hands of a new director, who will likely put his own brand on it in some way. Columbus has missed his chance; maybe Cuaron will come up with something different. Without the newness of the first film to give it some electricity, this Harry Potter outing comes off as harmless but flat.