Monday, July 11, 2011

From the Vault: Chamber of Secrets

Here are my original reviews of all the movies in the Harry Potter series. My review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 will publish here by Thursday.

What took George Lucas four films, or one prequel, to do — drain the heart out of a story in favor of limitless special effects — Chris Columbus has done in two.

To the credit of Lucas, whose trilogy of Star Wars films were wholly complete until the dreaded Episode I came along in 1999, at least he put some years between the goodness and the badness. Columbus though, has used the momentum from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to ram its sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, head-first into a concrete wall. A wall that no amount of magic could render invisible.

Then again, that opinion comes from a muggle, a non-wizard, so take it with as much salt as needed. At least fans of author J.K. Rowling’s bespectacled young wizard like their food salty. The Chamber of Secrets isn’t bad; it’s just not great, at least not like the first one, which had the young wizard-in-training enrolling at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and beginning is saga. The sequel is flat and cold, a poor tribute to Rowling’s warm writing style.

After spending a wretched summer with his muggle relatives, including the smarmy Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia, Potter (again Daniel Radcliffe) returns for his sophomore year at Hogwarts. He’s met with some ominous foreshadowing, though: a blocked passageway on Platform 9 ¾, from where he’s supposed to board a train to Hogwarts; an attacking tree that ensnares his flying Ford and a suicidal house-elf named Dobby. Like Yoda before him, Dobby only speaks in the third-person: “Dobby like Harry Potter. Dobby don’t want to see Harry Potter hurt. Dobby thinks Harry Potter should not go to school.” It’s annoying in mere seconds.

Potter ignores the warnings though, and heads to school where he encounters the usual Potter fodder: the moving staircases, wandering ghosts (one played by John Cleese), talking oil paintings and an ornery rival tribe led by a wretched boy named after a particularly vile Carpathian. Yes, Draco Malfoy is back, this time as lecherous as ever. The movie is all business: lots of plot and expository dialogue. Even Potter’s friends seem rather bored. Ron (Rupert Grint with Greg Brady voice cracks) and Hermione (Emma Watson) often times just stand there in stunned silences like set dressing.

Someone, or some thing, at Hogwarts is petrifying students into comatose logs of flesh. They’re easily cured, but still the culprit has to be caught before someone is killed. And since everyone, including the all-star wizard team led by Albus Dumbledore (the late Richard Harris), is ignorant to the most basic sleuthing techniques, Harry Potter is the only one that can solve the Chamber of Secrets, which turns out to be a snake pit in the little girls room.

Plotwise, very little is different with the sequel as compared to the original. Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) still randomly shows up and helps the not-so-young Harry Potter and his dimwitted friends. There’s another Quidditch match (basically rugby on kitchen brooms), this time with more treachery and unsportsmanlike conduct. There’s lots of creatures and spooks, too: a whining specter in the bathroom, a snake that slithers through the ventilation system and a giant spider and its army of babies, which, in just five minutes, managed to look a thousand times better than the entire movie Eight Legged FreaksThere’s even a new character, the narcissistic new Hogwart teacher Gilderoy Lockheart, played with superb arrogance by Kenneth Branagh.

Through all this the Chamber of Secrets uses magic, yet fails to be magical on this 161-minute exhibition of visual hocus-pocus. It’s as cold and dreary as Hogwart’s castled hallways. The enchantment is gone. In it’s place are yards of emotionless special effects and digital tripe, designed to swoop in to gracefully transport Harry Potter from Rowling’s pages to the movie screen. Too bad they mangled the pages in transport.