Monday, July 13, 2009
All right, then. Now that I've gotten all the background for my feelings on the Harry Potter franchise out in my previous review -- hey, it's almost like an allegory for the film itself! -- I can now fully concentrate on the film at hand, hopefully wasting less of your time with fewer words. Let's see how long I can go until I shatter that promise, shall we?
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone nearly bored me to tears; its endless exposition and world building left it without an emotional core, thanks in no small part to the amateurish acting of it three leads (who, to be completely fair, were indeed amateurs). Having not watched either it or this second installment since before the fourth film hit theaters, I found myself dreading the prospect of revisiting the other Columbus adaptation. After all, the first film was downright cloying in its faithfulness, and I didn't remember this deviating too much, either. So, I at last resigned myself to inevitable defeat, comforted slightly by the realization that soon I could move on to the third and fourth installments.
Happily, the film was a noticeable improvement all around. The Chamber of Secrets, working in the same world established in the first novel, freed Rowling to actually explore her characters a bit and, alongside the rambling Order of the Phoenix, contains some of the least plot of the series. Ergo, when Chris Columbus and Steve Kloves treat this book with the same adoring care they did the first, they can, in theory, spend more time with the characters.
Amazingly, Chamber of Secrets is a good 10 minutes longer than the previous movie, though its pace has noticeably quickened. Harry languishes in the Dursleys' home for the summer, kept away from his new friends, who curiously don't even send him any post. One night he's visited by a self-tormenting house-elf named Dobby who plays like a poor man's Gollum (basically, he's all Sméagol, yet he stil fights wth himself). Dobby begs this kind and powerful boy not to return to Hogwarts, lest unspeakable danger befall him. To ensure this, he causes a ruckus which the Dursleys blame on the lad. The Weasleys break him out, though, and soon Ron and Harry are off for another year of adventure.
Newcomers in the film include Jason Isaacs as a note-perfect Lucius Malfoy, who out-sneers even Tom Felton's Draco when he condescends to Harry and the entire Weasley clan. But it's Kenneth Branagh's Gilderoy Lockhart who steals the show. The foppish oaf with a winning smile (literally) takes up the vacant position for Defense Against the Dark Arts, but he quickly reveals himself to be nothing more than a charlatan and a buffoon. Such a role easily calls for some scenery chewing, but Branagh is just restrained enough to make Lockhart work as both comic relief and infuriating sub-villain.
But the main enemy this time is not the Dark Arts teacher but an unknown assailant attacking students with Muggle blood. A message is written in blood: "The Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Enemies of the Heir, beware." Soon, Harry's ability to speak with snakes is revealed, and he becomes the prime suspect. At some point, he stumbles upon a magic diary that can converse with him and even show him memories from the last time that the Chamber was opened.
These events start the ball rolling toward the darker tone of later installments in the series, but Columbus still attempts to create an air of whimsy about the picture, something he couldn't even do when the tone of the novel fit the approach. I mean, Harry and co. have to interview the ghost of a girl who was killed in the previous attack spree, yet that never feels as disturbing as it really is.
When Harry at last descends into the Chamber, though, things pick up considerably. The animation of the basilisk looks nice, but it never blends into the backgrounds convincingly, and Columbus' stabs at action shots lapse into absurdity -- a POV shot of the snake lunging for Harry is particularly laughable. I also picked up on one line, when Tom Riddle, the man in the diary and the basilisk's master, shouts: "The basilisk may be blinded, but it can still hear you!" A problem: snakes don't have ears. Now, it can pick up vibrations, sure, but even a giant snake that can kill with a stare is sill a snake.
On the plus side, the acting gets a bit of a boost this time around. Rickman still has little to do (indeed he is tragically under-used throughout the series) and Harris, though authoritative, fails to capture either Dumbledore's loopy essence or his hardened core. He instead seems more like an English Mr. Miyagi, offering faintly witty nuggets of advice and encouragement. Radcliffe, however, delivers his lines with more conviction, and Grint works as great comic relief if not a strong lead in his own right. Watson too has improved her approach, still capturing Hermione's nerdiness but backing off the more annoying deliveries. Even as new cast members such as Branagh and Isaacs steal their scenes, these kids can finally hold their own, though it helps that the rest of the vets are still either phoning it in or limited by the script.
The entire film's quality in relation to the previous film can be summed up in its score: John Williams' soundtrack for the first film was a garish, clanking affair that fully displayed the composer's worst traits -- overly boisterous blasts of brass and strings that signal triumph even before the battle's been won. And the Diagon Alley music sounded like a lame carnival. Here, he's more subdued, but barely. He still chucks himself in the middle of scenes and robs them of their power, but just not quite as often. That's Chamber of Secrets in a nutshell: still a weak, too-literal movie, but the signs of a positive growth are certainly exhibited.