Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Why, you may ask, don’t I like Harry Potter? After all, hasn’t it captured and captivated many a fan of speculative fiction (including my girlfriend)?

Is it the infectious commercialism? A paranoid distrust of the mainstream? Or the thousand and one soccer moms crying joy to the heavens? “Oh, The Children are reading again!” As if some of us haven’t been reading all this time. But then a trend isn’t a trend until the lame, the halt and the stupid catch up. Remember that, children, and remember it well. Especially once Michael Bay makes another movie.

Oh, wait, he already has.

On that happy note…

To be fair, I went into Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with a kind of wry resignation. Alright, I thought, I can at least read one of the damn things before I go off and bitch about them. At the very least, I figured I could get some good ammo for the daily debates on the subject I was having at the time. Probably not the best mind-state for good analytical analysis, but I made it.

While J.K. Rowling’s prose is nothing to write home about, I survived The Sorcerer’s Stone without any permanent damage. Rowling’s no R.L. Stine, but she never pretends to be. Stylistically, Harry strikes me as more in keeping with the old school children’s authors of the early twentieth century. Think of J.M. Barrie. By now, Harry’s certainly as famous as that other supernatural English pre-teen male. Whether he’ll have an equally long shelf life is a debate I’ll leave to the actual fans.

I watched the movie version of Sorcerer’s Stone on my old computer, during the three glorious months I enjoyed a cable modem and KaZaa version 1.0. The movie went exactly as I thought it would, being an almost perfect Xerox of its source material. The only surprise came when I clocked the movie in at just under three hours. Not the most satisfying experience. So when my girlfriend rented The Chamber of Secrets my first thought was, Well, at least this time I’ll be surprised.

We catch up to The Boy Who Lived (still played by Daniel Radcliffe) as he sits in his room, making googly eyes at his Magic Photo Album (ask for it by name). It’s summer, and summer finds Harry confined to his eevil aunt and uncle’s house (still played by Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw). But Our Hero’s non-life takes a sharp left when Dobby the House Elf (voiced Toby Jones) shows up with a requisite Dire Warning. Harry “must not return to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry this fall.” Apparently, “terrible things” are massing against him, and Dobby (a horrible Gremlin/Gollum crossbreed) is determined to keep Harry safe, despite the wishes of his unmentionable “master.”

Thankfully, the timely intervention of the Weasley brothers and their flying car saves Harry from having to spend another damn day with his hopelessly muggle relatives. Soon, Harry’s right back in his element and Year Two begins eerily enough as soon Harry begins hearing voices: mysterious whispers that inevitably lead him to The Wrong Place at The Wrong Time. It seems someone (or something, dun, dun, dun) is petrifying the students of Hogwarts, leaving behind cryptic messages written in blood. “The Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Enemies of the heir…beware.”

Just what is the Chamber of Secrets? Who the hell is the “heir”? And just where is all this blood coming from? Fear not: two out of three of those questions will be answered. All one has to do is survive this movie’s two hour, forty minute running time.

Chamber of Secrets was (apparently) made hard and made fast. All involved got a total of four months between films to bask in the success of Sorcerer’s Stone. Then it was back to the grind for all the principal cast and crew, which is a blessing in itself. And a curse.

Once again we follow the adventures of Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) in agonizing detail. Director Christ Columbus opts for a literal translation from book to film in a painstaking effort to piss off as few fans as possible. Which makes it all the more amusing when he fails.

I know my girlfriend was pissed. I endured many a dissertation from her on the (apparently numerous) divergences from the book. She informed me that a fair amount was cut from this production for (one presumes) running time. If this proves true, I can only thank Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steven Kloves. As it is, Chamber of Secrets moves like a roadrunner with grapeshot tied to its ankles. God only wonders what the Columbus/Kloves team will make of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. At one hundred and four pages longer than this movie’s source, their Azkaban could shatter the three hour mark. To say nothing of that 870-page monstrosity Rowling’s just loosed upon us (and already sold to Hollywood). Are the Golden Globe’s ready for the eight hour, scene-to-screen director’s cut of Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix?

Am I? Jesus, only a die hard masochist would even contemplate such things. But then again, I did watch Chamber of Secrets twice.

And, yes, we were talking about Chamber of Secrets before we skewed into this tangent. You’ll have to forgive me. I’ve just spent the last three days immersed in Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. That’s my excuse.

All the principal actors pull through once again. The children’s acting is no more or less adequate than the last time around. I suppose that’s more a fault of what they have to work with than anything else. This is obviously Harry’s movie. His Little Friends function more as foils than anything else. Hermione manages to pull through with some relevant plot info, but by then we’re over two hours in and it’s time to rap shit up. Radcliffe has just enough Leading Man Mojo to carry the flick, but by the 130-minute mark (when the epilogue is dragging on and I’m beginning to wonder what’s on the WB) even his honest face starts to wear a bit thin.

Actually, it’s not that bad. The Two Towers was longer, and galaxies more complex, but Chamber of Secrets is missing something. Perhaps it’s a reason for me to care. I salute Christ Columbus for his efforts. Every Harry movie he makes distract him from making another Home Alone. But no amount of CGI assisted sweep-pans is going to make me fear for these character’s lives. I already know who lives and who dies. Not all that different from a Slasher flick, now that I think about it.

Chamber of Secrets, for all its sluggish plotting and one-damn-thing-after-another storytelling, its still light years away from, say, your Jurassic Park 3s or your Tomb Raiders. And it is nice to look at. Columbus and cinematographer Roger Pratt make sure of that with a lush color palette, the aforementioned sweep-pan, and some great production design from Stuart Craig.

So, yes, props to all involved. They gave us a finely made, empty movie. I’m tempted to tack on an extra half-G purely for technical reasons. It’s an okay flick for a boring Thursday afternoon, but is it good for much else? Doubtful.

Because when you get right down to it, I just don’t care about Harry Potter. And now we’re back where we started. Which is always a good place to stop.



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