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With Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Chris Columbus turned guaranteed box-office gold into a water-cooler nonstarter, an unlucky fate for a man stuck directing 2001’s second-most-anticipated screen adaptation of fantasy literature. When the fabulous Fellowship of the Ring blew the merely faithful Sorcerer’s Stone out of the water during last year’s parade of glistening Thanksgiving screen turkeys, it seemed as if Columbus faced two options for the Potter sequel: Do something imaginative or continue to depend on the tween audience’s loyalty to J.K. Rowling’s series—if not the director’s slick but stolid vision.
With Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Columbus has lucked out. Being incapable of interpreting material in any meaningful way, he treats the second book’s narrative with the same sedulous grandiosity as he did the first. But Rowling’s sequel is darker and more complex than its predecessor, girded with enough flying buttresses to support the film’s heavy machinery of tinsel-and-pasteboard magic: magnificent interiors, swooping crane shots, CGI foofaraw, and bullying tree chimes on the soundtrack. The child actors aren’t any better—Rupert Grint, who plays the increasingly adorable Ron Weasley, is actually worse—and there’s a predictable surfeit of sentimentality, but the tone is solemn and consistent, the action effective.
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Year 2 finds Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) once again besieged by the pretensions of the awful Dursleys, the Muggle relatives who took the orphan in and sheltered him with all the loving care they might show a visiting dung beetle. The intro makes short work of the possibility that Harry might not return to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry: The Dursleys seal off his bedchamber, and Harry receives a warning from Dobby the house elf, a kind of wizard indentured servant, whose wholly digital existence does not forestall a sense of queasy dismay when the creature “punishes” himself by slamming his head into a dresser. Dobby’s servitude and the gross caricature of Christian penance brought on by his merest thought of rebellion—”Dobby had to iron his hands,” he tells Harry later, with visuals—sets up the darker tone of the new story.
But soon enough, Harry is rescued by the warmly messy, poor, and loving Weasley clan and dispatched Hogwarts-ward, thanks to the magical properties of a sky-blue Ford Anglia. From there: The car gets trapped in the Whomping Willow, the Chamber of Secrets is opened, students are attacked with some mysterious immobilizing power, Harry finds a diary, Hagrid harbors a secret, the wizard version of racism rears its ugly head, vulnerable freshman Ginny Weasley has a crush on Harry, and celebrity Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart enchants the ladies and disgusts the boys. All of this, of course, is either ringing very loud bells or sounding like utter gibberish, depending on your level of Potter savvy.
The grownups haven’t relaxed into their roles yet—which is nice, given that the courtly primness of a posh school’s masters, with their ravishing velvet costumes and queer spooky hats, is a subtheme of the novels. Maggie Smith purses her lips down to nothing as Minerva McGonagall, Alan Rickman makes a gloriously greasy Severus Snape, and the late Richard Harris is all twinkling aged wisdom as the righteous Albus Dumbledore. Dead-on casting abounds: Robert Hardy was born to play Ministry of Magic head Cornelius Fudge. Jason Isaacs, most famously hissed at on American screens as the chief redcoat baddie in The Patriot, is suitably menacing as the wayward wizard Lucius Malfoy. And Kenneth Branagh is a scream preening and dissembling in the role of the wizard-world matinee idol Gilderoy Lockhart, who presides over a classroom featuring a huge painting of himself pompously painting a small painting of himself, all of them in smug, gut-sucked motion. During a demonstration of a magical duel, which is like 8 Mile’s freestyle battles with wands, Lockhart arches his back with all of Errol Flynn’s sensual grandeur, which Snape wipes out in one quick, serious, cape-snapping stride.
As for the younger actors, well, they’re embodying not so much characters as an intellectual property—which would be no picnic for them even if they had talent. Radcliffe is fine as Harry, his solemnity sliding into a burgeoning anger as Harry seeks the power to subdue the forces that threaten him. (You begin to believe that he and the House of Slytherin might have been a good fit after all.) The far-too-pretty Emma Watson is once again hopeless, but she’s Hermione, and we’re glad to see her back. And the supporting roles are well-cast but underdeveloped: The two lugs playing Draco Malfoy’s moronic sidekicks, Crabbe and Goyle (Jamie Waylett and Josh Herdman), get to shine when Ron and Harry inhabit their bodies thanks to a switching potion, but more of the hapless Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) and dreadlocked Quidditch announcer Lee Jordan (Luke Youngblood) would have been a welcome shift from the relentless focus on our three heroes.
But this is Harry’s story, and the princeling still hasn’t earned his kingdom. For all of his bravery, venturing into a spider’s den and meeting the Thing in the Chamber head-on, he’s saved in the end by Hagrid, Dumbledore, and luck. Halfway through the film, you begin to identify with the perpetually sneering Draco—Harry breaks all the rules and wins all the props, he’s coddled by his seniors, and neither his magic (inferior to Hermione’s, who studies hard) nor his heart (not a patch on that of stalwart, economically handicapped Ron’s) seems worthy of the near-universal acclaim he receives. Columbus has succeeded twice by playing it safe, first by merely putting Harry on the screen, then by being given a narrative that matches the tone of his oversize effects. It’s up to Alfonso Cuaron, on deck to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, to finally make us care about Harry for his humanity as well as his wizardry. CP