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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

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  • noelbotevera
    Hardly Better Noel Vera Last year s Harry Potter and the Philosopher s Stone was a so-so fantasy about a boy who comes to Hogwarts Castle to learn about
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 13, 2002
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      Hardly Better

      Noel Vera

      Last year's "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" was a so-so
      fantasy about a boy who comes to Hogwarts Castle to learn about magic
      and eventually defeat a powerful wizard. The movie featured mediocre
      direction (by Chris Columbus), boring special effects (by Industrial
      Light and Magic, among others--it's all subcontracted, nowadays),
      horrible music score (by John Williams) and a strangely appealing
      central performance (by Daniel Radcliffe, as Potter).

      It would be wonderful to report that the sequel is better all around;
      that maybe Columbus actually acquired a visual style in the year
      between making the two films; that maybe Williams developed a
      conscience and swore off composing music for a decade. Add to these
      possible miracles word that the second book in J.K. Rowlings' series
      is better, much darker; that the lead children's faces stretched a
      few millimeters (making them less chubby), their voices dropping a
      notch (making them less squeaky); that sequels, having familiar
      characters, can do more with them (like tell a better story).
      Subtract the sad fact that Richard Harris is gone (I didn't think he
      made much of an impression as Dumbledore but a world without Harris
      is nevertheless a much dimmer world); that Columbus and Williams are
      STILL on board; and that the advertising campaign is of such ubiquity
      and intensity and volume (sort of like carpet-bombing) you're tempted
      to hate the picture even before you've seen it. Sum it all up and--
      well, it would be very, very nice indeed, and quite a surprise, to
      report that the second film is at least passably good...

      No such luck.

      "Chamber of Secrets" has Potter back with his aunt, uncle, and cousin
      (you'd think, after having been abused by them for years, that he'd
      find other lodgings). He leaves with his friends in a charmingly old
      flying car--which quickly loses its charm when it starts whizzing
      around like the Delorean in "Back to the Future" (CGI effects, what
      do you expect?), John Williams' music score blasting away in the
      background. Before he leaves, however, he's given a warning: don't
      go back to Hogwarts' Castle, otherwise terrible things will happen.
      Potter promptly heeds this warning and the movie ends fifteen minutes
      after it began.

      Just kidding. Warnings in movies like these are actually guarantees
      that the hero goes ahead, full throttle (wouldn't it have been more
      interesting if at the end the hero looks back and decides he was
      wrong to ignore the warning?). At Hogwarts we get blood painted on
      walls (it's never specified whose blood), and dour predictions about
      the "Chamber of Secrets"--a hidden room in the castle (but don't they
      all have one?) housing a powerful monster that will destroy all
      the "mudbloods"--students of mixed magical and non-magical (sorry,
      Muggle) blood. The subtext, presumably, is about race--purebreds
      against those of mixed parentage (Rowlings' books are apparently all
      about parents--the loss of them; the way we remember them; the way
      they somehow persist in us; the nature of them, rich, poor, of mixed
      blood, etc.). Whatever (just a thought: you see creatures of various
      species in Hogwarts, but no Blacks or Chinese or Filipinos or
      Indians...you'd think voodoo, "feng shui," and "salamangka" would be
      considered viable forms of magic...)

      The next hour or so is an extended (well, overextended) mystery, with
      Potter and friends trying to find out who's been petrifying various
      students and staff in Hogwarts Castle. In between is a Quiditch game-
      -faster and more violent, complete with rogue bludger (that's "flying
      soccer ball" to us Muggles), but shot in the same old, boring CGI-
      effected way: with camera tied to hero's butt as he slaloms up and
      down and sideways, roller-coaster style (you can tell the kind of
      rides CGI-effects designers enjoyed when they were kids). There's an
      interlude in the forest with about a million spiders that might make
      arachnophobes in the audience squirm (personally, I like them--
      spiders, not arachnophobes), but doesn't seem to do much to advance
      the story very far. Possibly my favorite moment in the film was when
      Potter's friend, Ron Weasley (Rupert Gint) actually questioned the
      necessity of going into the woods in the first place. It's such an
      honest and to-the-point question (I wondered the same thing myself)
      that I had to laugh; I was sure Weasley would be struck down for his
      impudence.

      Finally--and I stress "finally" (those who haven't seen the film may
      want to skip this paragraph)--we get the monster hiding inside the
      chamber: a basilisk, a reptile so deadly just a look from its eyes
      will kill you on the spot. This turns out to be yet another CGI
      creature, an escapee from the B-movie "Anaconda" but with extra fangs
      and antennas glued to its head. Potter defeats said monster with help
      from a phoenix and a sword pulled out of an old hat (for a poor
      orphaned boy, Potter gets plenty of heavy-duty support: friends from
      chief wizard Dumbledore to groundskeeper Hagrid; gifts of brooms and
      owls and invisible cloaks; prophecies that declare he'll grow up to
      be a great magician anyway, so what's all the fuss about? Potter's
      so primed to succeed at everything he's almost redundant).

      The adults helped propped up the first film, so it's a disappointment
      to find them weaker in this one. Harris looks so feeble as
      Dumbledore it's as if he's being propped up by his white mane of a
      beard. Maggie Smith as Professor MacGonagall doesn't get to do much
      more than stage-manage the students ("go to your rooms; go to the
      Common Room; go to bed"). John Cleese as a floating ghost is wasted--
      the most he gets to do is tip his decapitated head to passersby
      (since he's floating he can't even do one of his Silly Walks).
      Robbie Coltrane has a comforting teddy-bear presence as Hagrid, but
      not much else.

      Jason Isaacs hams it up outrageously as Lucius Malfoy--too
      outrageously; he can do more with one raised eyebrows than any other
      actor can with a thousand curses, and it demeans him to be seen
      trying so hard. Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy is, if anything, cruder
      and more obvious--Villainy, 101, remedial class. Father and son
      really should take their cue from Alan Rickman who, as Professor
      Severus Snapes, has turned the twisted sneer into high art (he's got
      snap comic timing to match, too). And Kenneth Branagh as the self-
      absorbed Gilderoy Lockhart is the most fun Branagh has been in years;
      I'd say he, more than anything else, helped me through "Chamber's"
      interminable 160 minute running time (I might actually have applauded
      the picture if he'd bumped off Potter and declared himself the hero--
      with maybe three or four sequels to follow).

      Of the three leads, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley hasn't grown as a
      performer: he still uses the same big gestures to register dismay and
      fear, fear and dismay. Emma Watson as Hermione Granger is a totally
      different actress, however; from the self-satisfied brat in the first
      film, she promises (like Brooke Shields and Jennifer Connelly once
      promised) to grow up into a real beauty (let's hope she can act,
      too). And I may consider Potter the character almost disposable, but
      Daniel Radcliffe isn't--despite the monstrously expensive production
      and special effects about and around him, he's oddly confident that
      the audiences' eyes are on him (they are), and that he needn't do
      anything big or spectacular--he can just merely be.

      If this were simply a drama about an orphaned boy Radcliffe might
      carry the day, but it isn't--it's a special-effect-laden epic about
      an orphaned boy with magic powers, and crucial as anything (perhaps
      most crucial) to the movie is its visual style. Of which,
      apparently, Chris Columbus has no idea exists, or is at all needed--
      for him, "atmosphere" probably means dousing half the set's lights
      and turning up John Williams' "eerie" music (Williams is apparently a
      believer in that old silent-film practice of "mickeymousing" music--
      music that just imitates what goes on onscreen, only in Dolby
      Stereo). Simple scenes like of Potter talking to his friends feel
      flat as a TV screen, so you don't care what they talk about (a lot,
      apparently); scenes with CGI effects in them have more energy, if
      only because there's more going on (and the Williams music is louder).

      It becomes all too clear especially when you see a genuinely
      enchanting work of fantasy like, say, Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited
      Away" (2001). The plot of this animated film is, if anything,
      simpler than Potter's (though it also involves a child separated from
      her parents): Chihiro's mother and father are turned into pigs, and
      she is forced to work in a magical resort hotel for vacationing
      gods. To keep her imprisoned, even her name is taken away, and she's
      left with the nickname of "Sen" (the literal translation of the
      Japanese title is "Sen and Chihiro are Spirited Away").

      The film begins on an even more mundane note than Potter's: a family
      moving into a new town (no cartoonish aunts or uncles here). Chihiro
      herself isn't particularly pretty, or strong, or brave; she's just an
      ordinary ten-year-old girl, bored and a little bratty. When she's
      separated from her parents and cast loose in the supernatural world,
      she develops not magic powers but her courage and will to live.

      Miyazaki does a few things Columbus doesn't--for one, he leaves
      certain moments completely silent, the better with which to create
      suspense, or drama, or terror. Also, he tells his story at a pace
      suited to the story, not the audience; he's never afraid that the
      kids will get bored (perhaps Miyazaki simply has more confidence in
      their intelligence). Then there's Miyazaki's ability to create
      fantastic creatures, of which at least one--the masked shadow-
      creature--is far more unsettling than anything served up in "Chamber
      of Secrets." Or Miyazaki's talent for telling stories that enchant,
      thrill, disturb, and move you, all with production facilities cruder,
      and a budget much smaller, than Disney's--or Chris Columbus', for
      that matter.

      It's unfair, comparing Columbus' picture to that of a master like
      Miyazaki--but if you want to know what I expect from a fantasy, well,
      it's everything the latter is, everything the former isn't.
      Watching "Spirited Away" is a little like walking in the bright sun;
      when the film ends the world seems darker, more depressing. All I
      felt when "Chamber of Secrets" ended was sheer relief, and the need
      to head for the nearest exit.

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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