Sunday, September 19, 2010

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (4/5)

It’s been a whole summer since we last saw Harry in his first adventure, The Sorcerer’s Stone. Since that time it appears as if he has spent his time doing the exact opposite of most school children, pining for the school year to begin. This changes when he suddenly discovers that an elf named Dobby has invaded his room. Dobby, a neurotic with a penchant for self inflicted harm, warns Harry that he cannot return to Hogwarts, lest he risks grave misfortune. Since it wouldn’t be a Harry Potter film without Hogwarts, Harry of course does not listen to the diminutive Dobby. Not even Harry’s cruel uncle, who puts bars on his bedroom windows, is able to keep Harry away from school, because soon Ron and his brothers bust their friend out of a permanent grounding with the aid of a vintage flying car.

Already one can tell that the second film will be an improvement over the cumbersome original. Instead of a drawn out introduction that takes place in the world of muggles (those who cannot wield magic), the film moves right along and breezily reintroduces us to the trio of friends, along with a more fleshed out background for each. We get to take a tour of Ron’s magical, but working class, house, and we discover that neither of Hermione’s parents are magical. And, even if most of the big secrets are being saved for latter installments, we learn a little more about Harry’s mysterious background and why he has the ability to talk to snakes.

For Americans, one of the chief appeals of the Harry Potter series is that the British setting is often as bizarre and mystifying as the world of magic: the characters send their children to boarding school, they drink tea socially and they are absolutely incapable of correctly pronouncing the word “schedule.” But perhaps the most interesting aspect of British society that sneaks into world of Hogwarts is the acute sense of class difference. In the last film Draco Malfoy appeared to represent the aristocratic classes, and here that theme is brought to the forefront. We even get to meet Draco’s father, who mocks Ron’s dad for working for what appears to be some sort of magician’s bureaucracy. Likewise, the big bad is also concerned with class purity. We learn that the founder of the Slytherin house once hid a chamber of secrets on the grounds of Hogwart’s, and should the chamber ever be opened it would rid the school of the mudbloods, those whose parents have no magical abilities, leaving Hogwarts to the purebloods.

As is the case with most sequels, the filmmakers pump up the main villain so he is a more menacing threat than in the last film. Following in the footsteps of some of the more famous serial killers, he has a penchant for writing messages on the wall in blood and stringing up cats. And no, the villain isn’t who you think he is. I too thought it might be Charles Manson, but, at the risk of spoiling the ending of the film, I will tell you that is not the case. (Although, if J.K. Rowling ever picks up her pen again, I think people would clamor for Harry Potter Versus the Manson Family). The stakes seem higher this time, and during the climax of the film Harry is now old enough to actually battle the villain rather than, as he did in the first film, relying on the power of his mother’s love, or some such nonsense.

Like all great sequels, The Chamber of Secrets deepens and enriches our understanding of the fantasy world thanks to additions both large and small. We are introduced to a new character, Gilderoy Lockhart, played by Kenneth Branagh, a famous magician and writer whose ego far outpaces his skills. We are keyed in on important moments in the history of Hogwarts, including the reason for the names of each house. Perhaps the coolest addition to the many magical artifacts in Rowling’s universe is a diary full of empty pages that can respond to written questions.

Of all the new magical toys, it is the flying car that speaks to the appeal of the books themselves. The allure of Rowling’s creation is that even though Harry’s a kid, he is still an active agent within the world of adults. Not only must he save the day, but he is often the only one who knows what is really going on in the halls of Hogwarts. For most children, driving a car is the ultimate symbol of the fun and freedom of adulthood, and perhaps the only thing better than driving a car would be driving a flying car. By putting Harry and Ron behind the wheel of the car, Rowling taps into most children’s first temptation to join the world of adults.

The director, Chris Columbus, seems more assured of himself this time around. In the last film the main plot would disappear for whole stretches at a time, as if Columbus had lost it under the couch. But here each random thread and subplot builds into the larger story. The result is that even though The Chamber of Secrets is longer than The Sorcerer’s Stone, it actually feels shorter. The action is also handled more deftly this time around. The quidditch match is much more dynamic, for example. The camera tilts and swoops just like the players themselves, making the game more kinetic. Just as George Lucas watched old footage of WWII dogfights in order to capture the same kind of energy during Star Wars’s space battles, Columbus likely watched Lucas’s Star Wars series in order to liven up his broom flights. The quidditch players are often seen flying in formation like the X-Wings before their assault on the Death Star and their broom chariots give off the humming sound of an engine the speeders in Return of the Jedi.

After watching the first film, I came away wondering what all of the fuss was about. Sure, there were some imaginative ideas, but it lacked the sense of adventure that elevates the greatest of fantasy films. While most of The Sorcerer’s Stone felt like a rigid sketch of the book, The Chamber of Secrets is the first movie in the series that feels as if it can stand on its own without knowledge of the book it’s based on.

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