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Harry Potter as Cinema: ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’

Harry Potter as Cinema: ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’

In case you didn’t know, the last Harry Potter film is coming out on July 15th.  In  countdown to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, I will be doing a twice-weekly series called “Harry Potter as Cinema”, starting with the first film in the series and working my way up to the final film.  I will take an academic approach to the Harry Potter films as pieces of cinema, examining not only their quality but also what they are saying thematically.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Directed by Chris Columbus

Written by Steve Kloves

USA, 2002

Director Chris Columbus returned with the second Harry Potter installment a year after the first’s release.As a film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a marked improvement over first installment.It’s not even close to being perfect, and it has gone down greatly in my estimation since when I first saw the film in the theatre, but there is enough good stuff in there to make it an adequate Harry Potter film while not really holding up when compared to the films following it.

There are a couple reasons why I think this film is better than Sorcerer’s Stone however the biggest might because it is no longer an origin story.  When done well, origin stories can be fascinating: Batman Begins and Casino Royale come to mind as recent successes.  However a poorly done origin story can become boring as hell.  Just ask George Lucas.  Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has now discovered his abilities as a wizard and we don’t have to spend a half hour being introduced to this world all over again.  The film is also a lot darker and is closer in tone to the actual book.  Thematically this film has a lot more going for it with it’s introduction of the prejudice that muggles go through, an obvious stand in for racism.  These things make for a much more interesting watch and there are some very good sequences here.

Unfortunately, the film still suffers from a lot of the same things that Sorcerer’s Stone suffered from.  The tone is quite uneven, going from juvenile slapstick comedy to dark malevolence within minutes.  An example of this is when Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) calls Hermione (Emma Watson) a mudblood, a racial perjorative for muggles, and the scene plays out with Malfoy cursing Ron by making him eat slugs.  Why must a serious scene like this contain something so sophomoric?  However, the worst part is back at Hagrid’s (Robbie Coltrane) hut when he explains to Hermione the meaning of the word and why it’s so disgusting. Ron than throws up and says “disgusting.”  In scenes like these, Columbus drains the film of meaning in favor of cheap laughs.

The special effects don’t really hold up, especially the creatures.  This is surprising because the effects remained pretty decent in the first one.  Columbus has admitted to the effects being rushed on the first two films so they could be ready by release and I think it’s most obvious with this one.  However that would not be a problem if the action sequences were good.  I can forgive bad special effects, the first X-Men comes to mind, as long as the sequences are themselves are well done.  While the ending sequence is pretty decent, the action set piece in the middle of the film involving the giant spiders is really poorly executed.  Because of where Colubmus chooses to place the camera, it is nearly impossible to tell what is going on.  It doesn’t help that the editing is far too frantic.

I think this film’s flaws just go to show how bad of a choice Columbus was to direct the first two films.  JK Rowling’s humor is along the lines of Roald Dahl, a very dark brand of comedy.  Instead Columbus insists on turning this into prat falls and obvious gags.

However, I do want to praise the film for some of the things it gets right and why I do think it is worthy of a marginal recommendation. Unlike some of the other films, this chapter of the Potter saga is rich with incident. The film is essentially a whodunnit centered around a series of petrifications involving Hogwarts students. Harry is also communicating with a former student named Tom Riddle through a mysterious diary.  This is a welcome change from the last film, which was essentially a lethargic run-through of the first book’s greatest hits. It is also considerably darker than the first film, which is a definitely a welcome change.  Yes the darkness is sometimes undermined by attempts at humor, but there is less of it here compared to the previous film.  The dueling club sequence is by far the best scene in the film.  It is quite unsettling and we finally get a peek into Harry’s inner psychological turmoil which will fuel some of the later films in the series. There’s also a welcome does of strangeness. A sequence that speaks to this is when Harry, Ron, and Gildroy are about to enter the Chamber of Secrets after getting a piece of information they needed from the ghost Moaning Myrtle. Myrtle stops them and tells Harry that “if you die down there, you’re welcome to share my toilet.”

The performances, while still being hit and miss, are also better. Richard Harris, who passed away shortly before the film’s premiere, is much better here.  This might be because he is given more to do but he handles the role of Dumbledore with appropriate grace.  Radcliffe is once again the standout among the kids.  I mentioned the dueling club above and the reason why it works so well is Radcliffe’s performance.  During the scene, Malfoy is dueling with Harry and conjures up a snake with his wand.  Right before Snape (once again played by Alan Rickman) puts the snake out, Harry starts to speak to it.  Radcliffe is really frightening when speaks parselmouth and I was actually genuinely worried for his mental health.  However it is Kenneth Branagh as the pompous professor Gildroy Lockhart who completely steals the show.  There is nothing funnier than watching a a character who is completely convinced of his brilliance and the he knows everything he is doing when in fact he is clueless.  Brannagh chews up every second of screen time with delightful verve.

Unfortunately the rest of the kids do not fare that well. Watson is once again quite grating as Hermione, although thankfully she spends much of the second half on the sidelines.  Rupert Grint isn’t much better and he is particularly bad whenever he has to appear panicked and clueless.

One can’t help re-watching this film and being disappointed.  Not only does this not hold up compared to the films that follow, but there was also a lot of potential to turn this into a very good movie instead of a merely decent one.  The themes that Rowling explores in this book are really interesting.  For example, the treatment of muggles and the prejudice they face offers an interesting parallel to the treatment of minorities in certain countries.  I mentioned X-Men above for a reason.  Not only were the X-Men comics a huge inspiration for Rowling, you can practically lay the plot of her books over certain storylines in the X-Men universe and not notice a difference, but X-Men succeeded where this failed.  That film took the allegory for mutants being outsiders seriously and gave the proceedings a lot of heft and weight.  I am reminded of a quote from Bryan Singer when he appeared on The Charlie Rose Show to discuss the first X-Men film in 2000: “My approach was always, how would I want a director to treat my favorite universe, something I’ve loved for decades? I would simply want he or she to take it seriously. As seriously as you take any serious science fiction film. With all the action and the fun, it should be taken seriously. It should be looked at as a film.”

Boy do I wish Bryan Singer would have been able to direct these first two Harry Potter films.