by Mark Pezzula
Whatever your personal feelings about the phenomenon that is Harry Potter, there's no denying that the films have etched a place in popular film culture, both critically and with fans. I can't name one other film franchise in cinema history that has juggled directors while keeping the same cast (whose main members started the series as children and now finish it as young adults) and only increased in quality. No matter how the final film (split into two parts) ends, it's safe to say the Harry Potter franchise has been a tremendous achievement on all accounts.
The first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is released on November 19, 2010. From now until then I will be doing a retrospective of each film in the franchise. Enjoy.
Directed by Christopher Columbus
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Isaacs
Not ten minutes into the first Harry Potter sequel we're introduced to the series's very own Jar Jar Binks: Dobby the House Elf. Attempting to convince Harry not to go back to Hogwarts, Dobby's not only a poorly rendered CG creation (looking like a watery rat compared with The Fellowship of the Ring's fully rendered and breathtakingly real Gollum) but also a ridiculously grating presence. As Dobby prances around Harry's room (where Harry is confined by the Dursley's - Harry's aunt, uncle, and cousin) and inflicts physical pain on himself after every mistake, one would not be blamed for thinking the makers of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets were about to make some pretty damning choices for the all-important sophomore film. Survive Dobby's few minutes on-screen, though, and you'll find that the first Potter sequel is charming and, in every way, better than its predecessor, albeit it comes with that films same shortcomings.
Harry returns for his second year at Hogwarts already aware that something sinister awaits, thanks to Dobby's warning. Before his adventure begins, however, he (and we) are introduced to that pack of magical, love-able, and crazy gingers: the Weasley's. After being rescued (in a flying car) from his prison at the Dursley's by Ron and Ron's twin brothers Fred and George, Harry hides away at The Weasley's poorly kept but wondrous abode for the rest of the summer. These early scenes contain some great work from the cast, especially Julie Walters and Mark Williams as mom (Molly) and pop (Arthur) Weasley, respectively. It also features lighthearted direction from Columbus, who obviously revels in portraying the Weasley's as a tight-knit, happy-go-lucky family who, while over-reliant on wizardry to perform every day tasks, really love each other in a grounded way. The Weasley's are everything Harry has ever wanted from a family but never got the chance to receive.
In film number two we're introduced to two new major characters: Gilderoy Lockheart (Kenneth Branagh) and Lucius Malfoy (a sinister (is there any other?) Jason Isaacs). With the casting of these two British Behemoth's, the Chamber of Secrets continues the precedent set forth by the Sorcerer's Stone: that good actors matter. The vain and empty-headed but charming Lockheart is made even more grand and pompous by Branagh's scenery-munching (not a knock) performance. Isaacs is predictably cold and calculating but nonetheless fitting as the hated Lucious.
In both cases, each performance is memorable and fun, and make the film's rigid text following easier to swallow, as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets makes the same mistake as its predecessor in that it sticks so closely to the book that there's little room for tangents, let alone for any new ideas to be explored. While this most likely pleases die-hard fans of the book, its frustrating for those of us who had hoped for a film that soloed a tad more than the first film. The rigidness not only makes the film at some points difficult to sit through but also ups the running time with scenes that simply pay lip-service to the book and serve no purpose in the film's overall narrative (for example: the Professor Sprout's Herbology class scene). Also, like the first film, the last act contains a barrage of exposition and plot-explanation, although that's more due to Rowling's over-reliance on such things in her books than Steve Kloves's screenplay.
Luckily, everything that was good in the first film is amplified to greatness in the Chamber of Secrets. Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, while not completely comfortable in their defining roles quite yet, are exceptionally better as the trio of friends in this film. And, although Richard Harris speaks barely above a whisper in his scenes as Albus Dumbledore (who passed away a few days before the release of the film), he projects majesty, wisdom, and a grandfatherly kindness that one would expect from a textbook reading of the character.
Columbus's handling of the special effects is also more than a few notches above his work on the Sorcerer's Stone. While Dobby is ugly and practically incomplete as a CG character, other special effects creatures, such as the Basilisk, are executed smoothly (for the most part). Columbus also steps up his directing game in parts of the film. Harry's battle with the Basilisk towards the end of the film is reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen's early work - from a special-effects standpoint, at least. While his directorial style is still mainly "point and shoot" on the Chamber of Secrets, the action beats feel less staged and more organic than in the first film. Perhaps it's because Harry confronts Voldemort in his corporeal form (a form that will not show up again until the fourth film), but the danger in the sequel feels more eminent than in Sorcerer's Stone. I credit Columbus with that feeling.
While Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets doesn't always successfully overcome its shortcomings, it does work harder at making you forget about them than its predecessor. It's a better film than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, but it's also a solid stand-alone fantasy film. Future installments practically eliminate the casual movie-goer by making each film a straight continuation of what came before. But Potter novices could walk into the Chamber of Secrets and not miss a beat. Regardless of whether you're a HP newbie or you've got your own sorting hat and have pledged your allegiance to Ravenclaw 4 Life, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets stands up as a fine fantasy film and a worthy adaptation.