It was okay. It wasn’t bad, just nothing special.
That’s how I characterized Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to a friend of mine who works as journalist covering films and therefore had passes to give me for an advanced screening.
I went into the film with mixed feelings. I love the books, but suspect filmed versions will only discourage new generations of readers, or failing that, it will usurp their imaginations as they watch the films prior to reading the tales.
And, not to be a total curmudgeon, but to see Harry Potter take his place in a culture of stupidly expensive, over-hyped products – as a movie, DVD, action figure, lego set, stuffed doll, fast-food tie-in, etc. — is a bit dispiriting.
But then again, I enjoyed the elaborate detail of the first film, as well as the opportunity to experience J.K. Rowling’s fantasy world and its compelling fictions in another medium. Such is modern life and its guilty pleasures.
Not that I would characterize the books as guilty pleasures. They are rich in humor, drama, and imagination. As millions of readers attest, there is no need to pigeonhole them into a category such as “children’s literature”; they are simply excellent fiction.
The first film drew me in as a good film should. The opening was full of anticipation of Harry’s escape from his hellish life – the letters from Hogwarts increasing in number until the air in the Dursley’s living room was thick with them, the retreat to an island to get away from the assault, and the entrance of Hagrid, realized beautifully by Robbie Coltrane. Then, as the tension was released, there was the majestic unfolding of Harry’s new world – Diagon Alley, train platform 9&3/4, the train ride with new friends, and finally, Hogwarts.
But with that film, as with the new one, I left the theater less than satisfied. Our three heroes, as in the books, were likable, and I was behind them, but by the end of both 2&1/2+ hour films I was mostly exhausted and reminded, more than anything else, of Rowling’s brilliance, her way with a fantasy world that feels grounded yet fanciful, and above all, humorous. The Whomping Willow in Chamber of Secrets is a perfect example. It’s grounded (obviously), it’s fanciful (a tree that whomps anyone who gets too close), and it’s humorous (the name alone).
The problem, as was the case in the first film, is that by the last third it all starts to look labored. What should be movie magic by the end turns into a standard, familiar, and inevitable confrontation with evil and an equally inevitable victory by our heroes. (Advice to Chris Columbus: there’s only one Spielberg.)
Even though, whether reading the books or watching the movies, we know our heroes will triumph, in the books the suspense is terrific, while in the movie, by the end, there’s too much of a spectacle, roller coaster feel. I couldn’t help imagining the big battle as a thrill ride at a theme park.
It worked in the books. I admired the way the plot pieces snapped together with a satisfying click, and the evil that Harry confronts feels menacing and real, instead of obligatory and comic-bookish. Although, truth be told, those we’re supposed to hate (other than Voldemort), the Dursleys and the Malfoys, are extremely wooden in both mediums. In particular, Draco and his father Lucius, are required to sneer and utter hiss-worthy lines that few actors could pull off, especially child actors.
The actors portraying Harry, Ron, and Hermione are again up to the task, infusing their characters with the necessary innocence and wonder, but coming off as three-dimensional. And the British thespians – Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, and Alan Rickman – are a joy to watch. Rickman’s performance, in particular, provides thrills for the way it skates the line between camp and character. Not so for Kenneth Branagh’s Gilderoy Lockhart. I found him to be too cartoonish and over-the-top. Kenneth seemed to be having a good time with the pompous character, but I wasn’t.
Many of the films’ weaknesses could be mitigated, were they headed by a more imaginative director. Or maybe they just needed to be more tightly edited. Two hours and 41 minutes is too much time to be in the hands of a pedestrian director; nor does it help that I feel that pop movies, like pop songs, have an ideal length – 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Still, there are a good many magical, engrossing moments, and as escapes to the movie theater go, you could do a lot worse.