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Non-Review Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets works much better as an episodic collection of scenes than a single story. It’s prone to fluctuate between rather brilliant moments and a few misfires here and there. It definitely feels extremely childish, as if the studio was attempting to construct a G-rated Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the John Williams soundtrack adding to the effect, the set design of the eponymous chamber looking like some forgotten archeological tomb, and even Julian Glover being afforded a small cameo (okay, he was in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but the point stands). It’s strange to look back at the second instalment, after all that has unfolded since, and look at how much more juvenile and simplistic it all seems in retrospect.

Malfoy drives stick...

The movie opens with the distinctive Harry Potter logo set against a relatively clear evening sky, with more than a hint of blue. Every subsequent film would erode away at the gold brand and set it against increasingly troubled horizons, but here it seems like everything is going to be all right. In fact, the movie is surprisingly free of even the mildest form of peril until almost the very end, when blood suddenly gets splashed around like spilled wine. Up until that point, it always seems like there’s no chance of any serious harm coming to anybody, and the worst we have to worry about is the concerned look on Rupert Grint’s face as the next hurdle presents itself.

You’d imagine that an evil half-blood-killing snake stalking the grounds, or even the messages scrawled in blood on the wall like at the Ripper crime scenes, would invite some form of terror in our leads (or at least shock the audience), but it doesn’t. Through contrived coincidence which seems especially hilarious when you consider the death toll in later instalments, Harry explains that the reason nobody has died is because “nobody looked it in the eye… at least not directly.” That all seems rather fortunate, doesn’t it? Hell, even when the life of Ginny, Ron’s sister, lies in the balance, the pair are rather carefree about it, with Ron quite willing to sit back and wait for Harry to do that hero thing he does.

Flashing a smile...

Of course, based on the evidence of this film, I’d make the strong case that our three leads are pint-sized sociopaths and Hogwarts is some form of institution for deranged individuals. Hermoine suggests that the two boys steal the identities of two fellow students to spy on Malfoy, and nobody bats an eyelid. She’s smart enough to realise that you need to get rid of the two guys before Harry and Ron can take their place, so she suggests they drug the pair and hide them in the broom cupboard. I realise the stakes are pretty high, but it’s no wonder that Dumbledore keeps an eye on these three. Later on, the kidnap a teacher and force him into a mysterious pit and, while trapped with a professor who has wiped his own memory, Ron clubs the poor guy into unconsciousness with a stone rather than answering any of the poor fellow’s questions.

That said, the teachers aren’t much better. Say what you will about the series and the fact that it’s based around three teenagers saving the world, but it has never been presented quite as awkwardly as it is here. In most of the other films, there’s a reason that the adults are unable to render assistance, whether they are tied up in bureaucracy or trapped in their own games, or even just physically isolated from the kids. Here, however, there’s no such excuse. Kids are turning up paralysed, and a foul magical creature is stalking the grounds, but the staff are completely and utterly powerless. Even the best Dumbledore, the man who went toe-to-toe with Voldemort, can do is to utter, “Hogwarts is no longer safe.”

Why the long face?

Worse than that, though, the teachers don’t just seem incompetent – they seem completely uncaring. When Ron’s sister vanishes, the wizards and witches on staff are more keen to score political points against one another than to find her, with Professor Snape eager to embarrass Professor Lockhart, goading the obviously incompetent teacher with fiendish glee, “Weren’t you saying just last night that you’ve known all along where the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets is?” If I was Dumbledore, I’d be bracing myself for a negligence lawsuit at about that point, because I’m damn sure the other teachers spent the night in the staff room laughing as Lockhart prepared to flee the grounds.

Part of it is at least gleefully silly, but the problem is that the movie runs far too long. While there are a collection of great sequences, one gets the sense that some judicious editing could have been applied. Though I’d be sorry to lose some great sequences like the Star Wars-inspired quidditch match, or the spider attack in the woods (conveniently after the lead spider had given Harry all the information the boy needed), or the final confrontation, or even the crazy car ride to Hogwarts, I’d certainly make a few significant trims. In particular, the ending of the film goes on at least ten minutes longer than is necessary, and resolves precious little.

Ron's feeling a bit uprooted...

There is something quite surreal about the special effects Christopher Columbus uses to bring his vision to life. At their very best, the practical effects evoke a sort of a Spielberg charm, but there’s a really weird disconnect between the CGI effects and the practical effects. The two work well independent of one another, but for different reasons, and they don’t gel especially well. In the spider sequences, for example, the spider puppets look like they were found in storage from some eighties fantasy movie – it’s actually quite charming in its own right, but looks strange when surrounded by an armada of CGI spiders. Similarly, the giant snake goes from looking like an extra from Jurassic Park to a standard CGI effect between shots.

I honestly don’t know if I favour one approach over the other. There are some stunning practical effects shots, such as those featuring Dumbledore’s pet phoenix, but it’s clear that practical work can’t really do it all. You need to augment it with CGI work, and then you have this weird disconnect. There’s just something cheesy about the mechanic way that the passage to the Chamber of Secrets opens, when everything else seems to move so fluidly. Still, that’s a minor complaint.

Duel action wands!

On the upside, some of the individual sequences are great, and easily among the best in the series. I think that this still stands as the best quidditch match in the franchise, and there’s a goofy charm to Ron and Harry’s joyride. These sequences work well, as does Harry’s final confrontation with the evil snake monster. I’m still quite curious about why the creature didn’t just bite any of its paralysed victims with its poisonous fangs, but we won’t worry too much about that. This is, after all, a movie so committed to a cheesy happy ever after that Dumbledore declares, “All exams have been cancelled!”

The major addition to the cast of this film is really Kenneth Branagh as Professor Lockhart, and he’s really quite a wonderfully cast actor in the role. I actually have an affection for Branagh, and it’s nice to see him given the opportunity to ham it up to a ridiculous degree. I honestly don’t think that any other character in the franchise handles their cloak quite as skilfully as Branagh, and I absolutely love how ridiculously full of crap Lockhart is made out to be, with even the students copping on pretty quickly. It’s actually a shame that Alan Rickman and Kenneth Branagh don’t get more screentime together – one doubts there would have been much scenery left by the time they were finished. It isn’t the best performance in the series, nor is it the best role, but I’d argue Branagh as Lockhart is the most fun. I mean, the guy introduces himself next to a portrait of himself painting another portrait of himself.

"You take my, you take my elf-control..."

And there’s something to be said of the bright and cheerful way that magic remains… well, magical here. Everything is bright and cheerful, and Harry is still impressed and amazed by things like self-washing dishes. “I think it’s brilliant,” Harry remarks of what must seem the most casual of spells, and there’s a lot of that young enthusiasm about. I think that magic would get a lot more casual and mundane in the movies that followed, with the excitement diminishing just a bit. So I do like the fact that everything is still new and exciting here.

However, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is simply too long for its own good. It runs at over two-and-a-half hours, which is a genuinely long time for a family adventure film, and it isn’t nearly consistent enough to maintain interest over such a long period. That said, the movie isn’t without its charms, but the best is most definitely yet to come.

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