If Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a tour of fantasy-land (who else thought their feelings seemed stuffed with baubles like gift-bags from a theme park?), The Chamber of Secrets is like accidentally wandering into the maintenance closet. Something is disenchanted by it, and I can think of no harsher criticism, to call something squinty that once was wide-eyed. This suspicion mounts as the cast splits apart: minor characters are petrified by an unknown assailant at the school, and the effect it has a dwindling effect where the first film romped without effort in an unending sepia tone smile. The sequel is cold metal, worried faces. Even Hermione is out for the count, a fixture in the film’s broom closet, and that point when Harry and Ron have to fill in for her gentle garrulity is when The Chamber of Secrets feels like it’s trying too hard to get over the limitations it set for itself.
Right away, something’s off. An elf named Dobby (like a small Jar-Jar Binks and about as annoying) makes Harry’s stay with the dubitable Dursleys that much more unpleasant. Then the sweetheart shuts off the gate to the magical train platform, forcing Harry to travel by flying car and risk expulsion at the hands of the Ministry of Magic, the parliament of pointy hats appointed to protect the magical world from discovery by the human “muggles.” Dobby’s a creep, and more, a story inhibitor: he makes this the only Harry Potter film that could be solved with four words from him. A little chat and the whole mystery of the film’s 161 minutes (the longest in the series) would be foregone. He withholds the vital words, “to protect Harry Potter,” from all his slapstick shenanigans. The only thing he protects is the script.
The notion of the mystery is questionable: the idea that there is any room in the ancient school of witchcraft that its illustrious inhabitants have not found is somewhat cheeky. The real interplay though is between Harry’s belief in himself and his suspicion that he is following the same path as his nemesis, the evil Lord Voldemort, when he was also a young wizard at the school. Seeing Voldemort as a child, the devices by which he reappears, is a kind of narrative sleight of hand, worthy of Dumbledore’s winking. It’s a beautiful revelation.
This doesn’t really smack any color into the film’s cheeks. But even if it’s a runt in the magical litter, The Chamber of Secrets retains the series’ best trait: the personality of little people developing and surviving in a world where the only superhuman magic master is a dead magical Hitler. The living people are normal, and they solve problems not with might but with a little good nature and lots of winking.
Harry never does get very good with magic, and that’s okay. Power in the magical world is synonymous with the possibility of corruption: the evil Slytherin house is full of the prom queens and super-jocks while the geeks end up in the more bookish dorms. The dichotomy is childish, but the result is a delight. The main wizards of these films can talk with kings without losing the common touch, as Kipling said. They possess a quality more rarely seen in adventure stories than unicorns: humility.
The film makes no secret of this being Harry’s most powerful weapon against the Basilisk (a huge snake that looks like a dragon without legs, a monster Jurassic Park might have rejected for being too evil). You see, The Chamber of Secrets does come around to the formula (the young knight wielding his sword against a fearsome monster), but it never surrenders to any heroic sins. Harry is a good boy, almost to a fault, and is not culpable even for his mistakes. Like the teachers whom Harry’s rivals rightly accuse of favoritism, we always fight to protect Harry Potter, as though the future depends on it. Notice the vulnerability hidden in that feeling: we would not feel a protection instinct, if we believed he could take care of himself.
Hogwarts itself has been muddied without really being complicated. In The Sorcerer’s Stone it was a palace of homey Christmas mornings, with wooden stairs and broad, log cabin windows. Every room was lit by fireside, even those that had none. Now we see the classrooms and laboratories and bathrooms and maintenance sheds. Like in the first film, the halls aren’t safe for children, but this time it's because of dinosaurs rather than because of teachers. Even the sagely Dumbledore (Richard Harris) doesn’t seem to know what’s going on. There's nothing wrong with moving to a darker tone, but commital is important. There's something about wizard eugenics sharing the scene with goofy cartoon elves that doens't quite work.
Not unlike The Empire Strikes Back, The Chamber of Secrets introduces a quaint predecessor with impressions of dark histories and caste conflict. Where before the evil wizards were terrorists, now the possibility exists for villainy in more worldly forms. The Aryan one-percenter Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) speaks through his prudish teeth, like you’re so repugnant to him that he can practically taste you, and is trying hard not to. There’s a deceitful sleaze called Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh) who has turned himself into a warrior hero in books of dubious merit (in a sense, he is the protagonist Harry Potter might have been). He is the new teacher for the class called “defense against the dark arts,” a position at the butt of the series’ running gag that those with the most power can be trusted the least. Where the first film rejoiced in creatures of our dreamy childhood (even threatening monsters like the troll had a certain innocent oafishness) The Chamber of Secrets is full of nightmares. A gigantic animatronic spider is a particular fright, not less so when he talks in a gentlemanly drawl. Ron (Rupert Grint) shows off his particular skill here at being a loveable fusspot.
Unfortunately, Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry doesn’t fair so well. It’s amazing what a couple inches on the top and a slightly lower voice tone will do to a lad, but if he was bad in the first film even equally, he could somehow be forgiven as the child he no longer seems to be. With Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and Snape (Alan Rickman) on the backburner and Hermione (Emma Watson) out of commission, Radcliffe has to do more work this time, and he has no chops for it. His smiling is particularly fake, exactly as small children do when they know there’s a camera taking their picture.
But since he’s no hero, since he really is a small child, the particulars of his clunky performance don’t seem to matter much. We can get lost with him in the labyrinthine castle, quaver with him in the lair of the spiders, and even learn something from the elder acting wizards, the mythically sarcastic Harris (playing Dumbledore for the last time) and curt Maggie Smith. Chris Columbus brought childlike magic (or at least, magical things) to the first two Harry Potter films, and he’s indispensable to them as he is replaceable after them. We needed him to dream up this journey, and also to let it go into its own adulthood. He has a say in how it will end up with The Chamber of Secrets, even if he’s not totally up to the challenge of keeping nearly three hours held together with the best actors playing the smallest parts. Mom and dad might not be awake by the end but this is the folklore of a generation: any kid would delight in going back again and again, even to a place that occasionally pretends to be a school.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
J.K. Rowling (book)
|Harry Potter||Daniel Radcliffe|
|Ron Weasley||Rupert Grint|
|Hermione Granger||Emma Watson|
|Albus Dumbledore||Richard Harris|
|Gilderoy Lockhart||Kenneth Branagh|
|Severus Snape||Alan Rickman|
|Lucius Malfoy||Jason Isaacs|