Over the years there have been culture phenomena I’ve avoided for various reasons. It could be as fickle as my mood, the presence of Eric Robert’s Ugly Sister (or ERUS, as Justin coined), or the fact that I just missed the entry point before the culture became saturated by the book, tv, or film series. In “Better Late Than Never,” I look past my objections to see if the culture was right or wrong to embrace the phenomenon so strongly.
Title: Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets
Release Date: November 15th, 2002
Objection: Continuing from my initial problems with how I perceived the franchise, people wanting to convert me into a Potter fan, and director Chris Columbus’s continued presence all meant this film pretty much passed me by. From trailers and posters, it looked to be another helping of whimsical nonsense. The emphasis placed on Dobby the House Elf didn’t help matters. From my point of view, Harry Potter had his own Jar Jar.
The film: I’m pretty sure I actually like the movie. Sure, it’s paced at a clip a mule would find embarrassing and that obnoxious sense of whimsy returns from the first film, but it also weaves together the magic school and Harry’s destiny in a way that I find satisfying. The invention of Tom Riddle’s diary is a master-stroke on the part of J.K. Rowling. It not only folds Voldemort into the story more closely, but it makes his obsession with Hogwarts deeper than it just being the place where Harry goes to school. Just about everything that’s good in the second movie stems from this concept (with a few exceptions).
The principle monster, with its ties to Hogwarts’ founding, is far more effective than the creatures glimpsed in Sorcerer’s Stone. Instead of that interminable troll sequence, we only ever see the aftermath of the Basilisk’s as it strolls through the halls. The petrified students are far more effective than anything we saw in movie one.
Sadly, Quiddich also returns and it just … sigh … it just isn’t interesting. While we do get a plot point embedded in the scene, there’s just no way to make the game look cool on-screen. It is mainly just a rehash of the first game with Draco Malfoy added to rack up the tension. The match does have a nice button when Prof. Lockhart attempts to heal Harry’s injury, but instead turns his arm to putty.
Lockhart is played by Kenneth Branagh with rare zeal. Like the actor, Lockhart is something of a windbag who enjoys reveling in his own accomplishments. While the film makes no secret of his dubious credentials, his scaredy-cat moments are probably the best bits of intentional comedy in the entire production. His eventual end is also pretty consistent with what we’ve seen in the world so far and a fitting end for the charlatan.
With Branagh , the level of performance also rises … sadly, this does not extend to the kids. While Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson do okay as Harry and Hermoine, Rupert Grint is still finding his footing as an actor. This is particularly true in the spider sequence when he whimpers at the sight of a larger spider family. I get the impression the director guided him towards a “Shemp” without really giving him an example of what made Shemp’s panicking so much fun. Instead, his yelps grate on the ears. Similarly, Tom Felton should go back and re-dub all his lines in this film now that he understands how to be a cinematic bully. In Chamber of Secrets, he never really comes off as the antagonist the early part of the series intends him to be. While he may have a change of heart later, Draco Malfoy is meant to be one of the bad guys here and Felton — who did become a good actor — just fails to grasp it here.
One actor who does grasp it is Richard Harris. He seems more alive in this film under the robes and hair of Albus Dumbledore than in the previous one. This is particularly true in the flashback scene in which Tom Riddle and a younger Dumbledore talk about the possibility of the school closing. Harris’s raspier voice gives way to one of apparent strength and dignity. I hope Harris actually sounded like this man until the end of his days, because the way he played the character in Sorcerer’s Stone felt like it was the first movie he made after he died.
Despite stronger performances, a more concrete story, and the encroaching darkness of the material, the film also has a few specific flaws that need mentioning
1. Harry’s muggle relatives make another appearance. I don’t think I mentioned it the last time around, but I think they are a missed opportunity. To me, the more interesting contrast would’ve been for them to just be mundane British people happy with their ordinary middle class lives. Harry’s despair would then come from his nascent perception of magic in the first film and his desire to return to the Wizarding World in the second (and subsequent) story. Instead, these character are cartoons. Their world is as fanciful as Hogwarts and, therefore, it offers none of the tension or ennui Harry is suppose to experience while he’s there. All those scenes do is prevent the story from starting, contributing to the over-all poor pace of the film. The movie could just as easily begin at the Weasley home or in Diagon Alley.
2. Scenes have a habit of not ending at the right moment. We should never see Ron and Harry in the enchanted car until the reach Hogwarts and wrestle with the angry tree. Why? Because nothing that happens in the ten minutes prior means anything! The close call with the train has no jeopardy and Harry hanging from the car door is completely pointless. I know it’s there because it’s in the book, but that’s hardly an excuse. Tom Bombadil was in The Lord of the Rings. Does that mean Peter Jackson had to shoot a scene with Ethan Phillips or Robin Williams as the obnoxious forest spirit?
I didn’t think so.
While the enchanted car might be the biggest example of run-on sequences, this holds true for many a scene where characters have finished talking about events, but continue to walk down hallways and pressing plot points. The limp punchline of Hermione turning herself into a cat-girl and the end scene in the Great Hall do the film no favors, either. At TWO HOURS AND FORTY MINUTES, the filmmakers should be looking at what bits of scenes, no matter how time-consuming or expensive, could be cut to make the film faster. When a movie is already shackled by a plot device that will take MONTHS of story-time to accomplish, you have to be ready for the consequences.
3. Hagrid in Azkaban
While it sets up the menace about to be unleashed in the third film, Hagrid’s arrest near the end of Chamber of Secrets fails to accomplish what it so hungrily wants to do: establish jeopardy. Up until the point when Harry and Ron go visit the game warden in his hut, the film’s jeopardy is entirely physical with students getting petrified at the reflection of the basilisk (legend says direct eye-contact will kill any living creature). Now, new jeopardies appear as Hagrid marches to Azkaban prison and Dumbledore accepts a demotion from his post as headmaster of the school. These developments are there to crank up the stakes, but they fail to do so spectacularly. The next time we see Dumbledore, he’s back in his office as though nothing had happened. The next time we see Hagrid, he gets an ovation from the students and a statement from Harry that would suggest Hargid was the key to the entire film instead of a man who couldn’t leave. I forgot Hagrid had been put into peril by the time Harry fought the Basilisk.
Verdict: While flawed, the film serves as a much better introduction to the Wizarding World. If I had seen it at the time of its release, I would’ve been more inclined to watch the third film upon its release and maybe even read the books. While Columbus’s bent toward the whimsical is still apparent, it is somewhat subdued as the material requires a darker feel. What is accomplished here is, essentially, “Voldemort Begins” and that makes it worth even a re-visit every so often … especially considering how many of the plot points and sets return in the final film.
That said, I still hate Quiddich.