Thursday, September 2, 2010

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

"Second verse / Same as the first / A little bit louder / And a little bit worse!"  Those lyrics belong to any number of children's songs, none of which I can recall right now, and I felt them oddly appropriate for the second installment in the Harry Potter franchise.  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets follows Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and that ginger kid (Rupert Grint) as they try to uncover the annual Bad Thing that is plaguing Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry this year.

It begins with a house elf, Dobby (CGI voiced by Toby Jones), trying to prevent Harry from going back to school.  Dobby's master is planning some mean stuff and Dobby wants to help Harry Potter; the only problem is that house elves cannot say bad things about their owners, so he cannot give Harry an explicit warning.  Thanks, Dobby, you're worthless.  And you remind me of Fergie.  Harry is eventually reunited with his friends and returns to school.  However, someone is doing weird stuff at Hogwarts.  Messages are being written on the walls with blood, claiming that the heir of Slytherin has returned and opened the Chamber of Secrets.  If that makes no sense to you, I suggest you read the book because I don't want to get into the history of Hogwarts right now.  Along with the messages on the wall, students, pets and ghosts are being found petrified, with no clues as to what could be the culprit.  I guess it's up to Harry and friends to solve the mystery of the haunted amusement park!  I mean, discover the Chamber of Secrets and the, um, secrets it holds.

So what does Harry Potter 2.0 have to offer?  Well, it gives the villainous Malfoy family more screen time.  Draco (Tom Felton) and his father, Lucius (Jasoc Isaacs), are suitably insufferable, and both are welcome foils to the do-gooding Potter crew.  Lucius, in particular, is nice and evil.  We meet the evil Voldemort again and learn some of his history.  We get to see more of Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), who will be important in later movies; Wright's performance isn't great, but it's difficult to be hard on a ten year-old.  Well, it's really not, but it feels mean.  This film also introduces the Whomping Willow and polyjuice potion, both of which will be used in later movies.  And that's about it.  Huh.  I guess this movie just sets up later installments more than anything else.

Chris Columbus directs this movie, as he did the first, and the results are basically the same.  He succeeds with the film's biggest obstacle: child actors.  The kids have gotten a little better at acting, although Emma Watson is still clearly the best out of the bunch.  The supporting cast is again stellar, with Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris and Robbie Coltrane all maintaining the same high quality they did the last time out.  The addition of Kenneth Branagh as an egotistical teacher was a wonderful idea, and he is perfect in the part.  The special effects look better this time around and the little details that were not captured in the first film are done right in this one.  Honestly, since this story is so similar to the first movie, it feels like they just smoothed out the rough edges and did the same thing as last time, but better.

That is the big problem, of course.  The Chamber of Secrets is handicapped by its similarity to The Sorcerer's Stone.  I think it is obvious that this is the better film; the acting is better, the threat is more frightening, the special effects are better, and we're not wasting time with an origin story.  However, the plot structure (Harry sees a problem, Harry gets educated on wizarding stuff, Harry fights Voldemort) is annoyingly similar to the first movie.  This is also true of the book, but I actually like the movie better because you can see the young cast's growth as actors.  Is it fair to criticize a movie for being similar to its prequel, when the source material has the same problem?  Yes, it is.  Nevertheless, this movie does a great job at capturing the wonder and possibility of a magical world, and doing so in a way that will appeal to children.  If the story was a little better (read: less similar to Volume 1), this would be a clear classic.  As it stands, though, it is still in good company.

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