The second Harry Potter film started shooting barely a week after the first one opened at the cinema. Director Chris Columbus is back at the helm, there's a couple of new additions in front of the camera, and a few changes behind. It seems like almost everybody stepped up their game, but the film still suffers from a few severe flaws. So, what's the bottom-line? Is this an improvement compared to the first film?
IT'S THE ONE WHERE...
Harry is warned to return to the school by a CGI dwarf, but when he does anyway, he hears voices. The students at Hogworts are being attacked, we're introduced to Malfoy's father, Kenneth Branagh plays the new teacher, and we find out not all wizards are created equal. There's a big-ass snake. A forest full of spiders. And a flying car.
More danger. More magic. Greater set-pieces. Bigger action scenes. The Chamber of Secrets has got it all! Okay, maybe it doesn't have everything, but the film does feel both bigger, deeper, and more magic.
Harry Potter's sophomore outing is a bit of a frustrating watch. The film looks fabulous, and it seems like the color-palette has been boosted to enhance the fairy tale feeling. Unfortunately the frustrating elements from the first film are back with a vengeance. The story has actual substance this time around, but at the same time the film is a little too keen to deviate from the central plot, and at 161 minutes the story drags on a bit. So I guess it all comes down to "good news, bad news".
Let's cover the bad first:
Bubble... Dubly? Dobby! The little house elf thingy! Whatever his name is he is AWFUL. Technically speaking the computer generated character is not all that bad, my issues are with everything else. His voice is annoying, his big stupid eyes are annoying, his face is annoying, everything he does is annoying! I truly felt like pulling my own arm off, and beating his little CGI body into a bloody pulp. He's the wizard equivalent of Jar Jar Binks. Yes, he's THAT bad.
My second big issue with the film is once again Harry's family. They're just as awful, and overact just as much, as they did in the first film. Look at the scene where they tell Harry he should stay in his room, while they have important guests... Look at the way the three characters interact with Harry. That's not acting! It's barely bad performance art. It's certainly not worthy of a film that expects to be taken serious. I don't know how this is portrayed in the books and frankly I don't care. This is a film. These scene should work ON FILM. They don't. Period.
Another reoccurring issue is Harry's arch enemy Draco Malfoy. Once again young Tom Felton reaches new levels of eyebrow acting, as he grimaces his way through the film. This time he has scenes where he needs to deliver dialogue and it just doesn't work. His performance consists of moping and sneering "PPPPPPotter!" In this film the issue is made even worse, because his father shows up. New addition to the cast, Jason Isaacs, stars as Lucius Malfoy. The part is underwritten, but Isaacs brings the exact right icy malice to his character. This is how Felton should have played the part, but maybe he's just not that good an actor. That's a real pity.
As for the other performers, most of them do very well.
Daniel Radcliffe gets to grow up a bit here, as Harry begins to recognize the magnitude of his legacy and his responsibility. The young actor handles the subtle change quite well, and I clearly get the sense that he actually understands his character. I look forward to seeing him do other things.
As promised, Emma Watson has found the right balance in her portrayal of Hermione, which is quite a relief. She's fast turning into a dangerous little heartbreaker, and though she's often asked merely to be the expositional element in a scene, she's added a depth to her performance that'll be a gift to the franchise, in the upcoming films.
Unfortunately Rupert Grint is worse than ever. He was always the weak link among the leads, but this time his interpretation of Ron reached new levels of unbelievability. Just compare his performance to Radcliffe's in the scenes they share in the forest. The difference is quite startling. There's nothing more to say.
The grown-up cast is pretty damn good.
Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, and Maggie Smith return, and they are as solid as ever. Rickman seems to enjoy being all nasty and evil! He always was most comfortable in villainous roles. This would turn out to be Harris' last performance on the big screen. He died about a month before the film was released. He will be missed as an actor, but in the part of Professor Dumbledore, I must admit I prefer his replacement.
Best of all, though, is the addition of Kenneth Branagh as Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. He's hilarious and steals every scene he's in! I've loved Branagh ever since I saw his Henry V (1989). He can do no wrong, and I'm sorry he won't be returning in the next film.
Top-notch performances from the actors are matching by top-notch work from the visual effects team. The film has more than a few show-stopping effect sequences. The quidditch game is far better than the one in the first film. The flying car scenes are impeccable, as is the truly nasty spider-scene, where a million huge spiders chase Harry and Ron. Really, really creepy! The final battle with a giant snake is also worth noting, especially because the film doesn't rely completely on CGI effects, opting instead for a mix between animatronics and computer generated stuff.
Having watched the first and the second film so close to each other, I see now why it would have been careless to reduce the first two novels to a single film. Too much would have been lost. There's the central story, which is fine, and then there's all the quirky, funny tidbits, which set up the environment. The paradox is that we need those tidbits to build up the universe around the characters, but at the same time they distract from the main story, causing the film to feel quite episodic at times. Ideally the two elements should be build together. That's often easier to do in a film, because you can operate on two levels - visually and narratively - simultaneously, without necessarily confusing anybody.
I think the film makers have fallen prey to a familiar problem: A fear of deviating too much from the books. With such an intimidating army of fans behind the books, who can blame them?
And so we finish our second tour of duty with Mr. Potter.
After this film Chris Columbus vacated the director's chair. We bid him a courteous farewell. He did a good job setting up the story, and casting the actors, but this Herculean task was not completed without certain missteps, which we've already covered.
As for the film itself, I find it hard to completely endorse it.
There are plenty of really good things here, but taking the flaws and the running time into account, it's a tough sell. I do believe that the franchise is on the right track, but whether it's going to reach the right destination as well remains to be seen. I guess I'll be a little wiser after I screen Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), which is up next. It's got Gary Oldman in it! That's (almost) always a good thing.
Feature running time: 161 minutes
Number of pages in novel: 251
Hermione Hotness Factor: 3/10
The Weasley Twins Creepiness Factor: 1/10
Voldemort-o-meter level: Zero. Repeat after me: A young punk claiming to be Voldemort, does not a creepy bad guy make.
Harry and Ron are chased through the forest by giant spiders. Holy crap there are a lot of them!