Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Slouching Through The Second, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets Only Mildly Improves.

The Good: Interesting plot, Moments of performance, DVD bonus features
The Bad: Erratic special effects, Annoying characters, Erratic acting
The Basics: With special effects that distract more than enhance and characters who are more annoying than substantive, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets fails to engage until after the viewer stops caring.

I am, among other things in this life, a very proud Alpha Geek. For example, I have reviewed every possible episode and season of all Star Trek (franchise) as well as episode by episode reviews of the complete Monty Python's Flying Circus, which are still popping up in my blog. I have a fairly detailed memory for science fiction and fantasy works and I do remarkably well with trivia games involving geeky topics. So, it might have surprised some of my regular readers when I did not enjoy Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone (click here for that review!). And as I continue my nights of screenings of the other Harry Potter Saga films in preparation of the release of the new film (the franchise is a favorite of my wife), I had pretty low expectations of the first sequel Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets.

Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets is an erratic film which takes an extraordinary amount of time to wander into anything resembling a plot, frequently repeating information from the first film. While this has the nice benefit of leaving the potential viewer with the option of skipping the first film, it offers less enchantment and more boredom for those who endure the first Harry Potter and then move right on to Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets. As per my usual, it is worth warning that this is a pure review of the cinematic version of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets; having never read the books, I have no basis for comparison (outside what my wife has since told me about the differences). As a film on its own, then, this is much more mediocre than anything else.

After ruining a potentially profitable deal for his Uncle Dursley as the result of the appearance of an elf in his bedroom, Harry Potter finds himself under house arrest in the muggle (non-magical) world. Warned by the elf Dobby, Harry is wary of returning to Hogwart's School Of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but finds it untenable being caught with the Dursleys. Harry is rescued by his buddy Ron and the other Weasley kids on his twelfth birthday and with the Weasley family heads off for school supplies for the year. Upon returning to Hogwart's - this time in a flying car stolen by Ron when the pair misses the train - Harry and Ron are reunited again with Hermione.

Soon after his return, Harry begins hearing voices that inform him that murders are about to happen and bodies of paralyzed animals, students and faculty begin to accumulate near trails of fleeing spiders and phrases written in blood. As Harry deals with detention with the new Protection From The Dark Arts professor, an egotistical celebrity named Gilderoy Lockhart, he, Ron and Hermione try to unravel the mystery surrounding the paralyzed people and the rumors of the Chamber Of Secrets somewhere within Hogwart's. Harry is challenged by Draco Malfoy, a Quidditch match and suspicions as he and his friends close in on a rumored monster that came from the mythical Chamber. But the appearance of a magical journal from former student Tom Riddle and the paralysis of one of his closest friends endangers Harry and all of Hogwart's!

My partner became reasonably upset with me as we watched Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets because when I watch movies for the first time, I tend to truly immerse myself in them, but with this one, I found myself so annoyed early on that I began talking through it. I was first disturbed by director Chris Columbus's almost immediate laziness with viewers in terms of effects. One of the very first occurrences in the film is Harry Potter looking through a magical photo album. In it, there is a picture of Harry, Ron and Hermione . . . clearly taken from the filming of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets. Why did this offend my sensibilities so much? Actors Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson all grew between the filming of the first film and this one. As a result, the picture Harry had from the prior year had to have him and his friends looking several months younger, but Columbus uses the current cast for that moving picture and it set off a chain of annoying detail-oriented events that robbed much of the enjoyment from the film for me. In less picayune details, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets is bloody boring for the fact that most of the first fifty minutes of the film - up until the first real mention of the Chamber of Secrets - is rehashing events much the same as they were in the first film. Harry is rescued from the Dursleys, gets school supplies, arrives at Hogwart's. These are not new events and the appearance of Dobby is more annoying than exciting.

But for people who have seen the first film, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets raises obvious questions that are not satisfactorily answered in this continuation of the story. Several gags are played off on the idea that Ron Weasley and his family are poor and cannot afford new supplies or the best things in life. Premise granted - and it is a good one, especially for realism - but on a character level the gags that come from Ron having to tape together his magic wand make no real sense. Harry Potter was left a fortune by his parents (seen in the first film) and when he first met Ron, he was generous with treating them to all sorts of sweets compliments of that largess. Are we supposed to believe that Harry Potter becomes more stingy when that friend rescues him from the Dursleys?! Why doesn't Harry shell out to get Ron a new wand? Why do the professors at Hogwart's let Ron practice magic with his obviously ruined tool? The only answer is that the plot demands it and this is ridiculous.

But Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets is preoccupied more often than not with style over substance. Professor Lockhart is an obvious fraud and the fact that professors like Snape do not call him out on it directly is troublesome. But, of course, Snape himself is a victim of the same prioritization of style over substance. Alan Rickman, who performs Snape with a surprisingly lackluster lack of enthusiasm, is expected to insinuate the idea that Snape is possibly evil or fascinated with the dark arts when all he does is wear black and scowl constantly to create that perception. Where Lockhart is all obvious flash with little ability, Snape is presented cinematically more as the idea of a power and menace than anything or anyone substantial.

It is only after the first fifty minutes - leaving an hour and fifty minutes of film - that the movie truly takes off. In the more substantial portion of the film, Hogwart's is beset with a magical mystery that has reasonable and interesting red herrings and detours for Harry and his friends. As Harry moves closer to realizing the secrets that surround the attacks on magic users who are not considered purebloods, there is a real mystery and it is a good one.

In that section, the real problems are only the erratic special effects and annoying characters Harry has to deal with like Moaning Myrtle. Chris Columbus fails, again, to get the special effects like those needed for the Quidditch match to not appear animated in several points and on an HD television, the bluescreen shots are painfully obvious. Moreover, the monster presented in the final act does not conform to the mythical creature that bears its name (I do not mention it here because even the name of the creature from the Chamber comes up very late in the film) so that is a bit of a letdown.

The acting is also a bit less consistent than serious cinephiles might like, but in this case, it is key adult performers who drop the ball more frequently than the younger ones. Christian Coulson is underwhelming as Tom Riddle, John Cleese and Alan Rickman are little more than cameos and Robbie Coltrane does little as Hagrid that he did not already do in the first film (outside not repeating the same catchphrase over and over again). No adult actor is given a worse go of it than Kenneth Branagh, who appears as Lockhart. Branagh, who might as well be going his extended impersonation of Ewan McGregor, lacks any subtlety as Lockhart, creating an over-the-top monolithic egoist instead of a truly viable character.

Of the young performers, Rupert Grint is given the short end of the stick. He is put in the most scenes outside Radcliffe's Potter, but he is often relegated to the sidekick and comic relief. With the way he is more often than not called to simply bug out his eyes and look ridiculous, his role makes one shudder; if this were a film from the 1930s, Ron would be played by a black actor and the role would be exposed for what it actually is, little more than a minstrel show parody. By contrast, Emma Watson adds a quiet maturity to Hermione and she steals virtually ever scene she is in. Still, she is clearly not used to working opposite virtual characters as her eyelines once again reveal.

Daniel Radcliffe does his part as Harry Potter, keeping the audience invested in him as the protagonist. Because Potter cares about people like Dumbledore and Hagrid, the viewer does as well and Radcliffe is largely responsible for that by the way he illustrates his deeper emotions through his eyes and body language. As well, he seems more comfortable on screen than he did in the prior film.

On DVD, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets appears as a packed two-disc edition that is still designed more for children than adult viewers. For example, there is no commentary track, but the second disc does have deleted scenes (not that they make the film much better). Instead, there are featurettes with J.K. Rowling and screenwriter Steve Kloves, interviews with the actors, production sketches and virtual tours of key Hogwart's locations. The featurette with Columbus's interview is particularly unenlightening, but it is still better than the spellcaster trivia game. The DVD also has trailers for the film and a recap of the first Harry Potter film.

None of this is ultimately enough for me to recommend the film. I appreciate movies with a rich sense of time and place, but almost an hour of this film is filler and too much of what remains is annoying or pointless (the Quidditch Match, for example, is yet another special effects sequence that adds nothing substantial to the movie, much like the podrace in The Phantom Menace). Before taking in this film, I bet that viewers would not need to see Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone and this one truly does recap enough so new viewers will not be lost. I can only hope that the third installment is better and allows viewers a similar level of accessibility.

For other fantasy films, please check out my reviews of:
The Little Mermaid
The Tooth Fairy


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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