Wisely perceiving (and abhorring) a vacuum between Halloween and Thanksgiving, the producers of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets apparently decided to anticipate the holidays and kick off the season a trifle early. Since their movie will assuredly harvest many millions of dollars and will probably still be playing somewhere at Easter, the maneuver hardly involved even a hint of risk. After the immense success of J.K. Rowling's novels and the box office smash of the first film, anything from the Pottery represents an absolutely sure thing, like betting on the sunrise. Since the filmmakers continue the mixture as before and presumably follow the inspiration of the original novel, the latest movie (and many more will surely follow) provides presumably all those things a large and eager audience desires.
Mingling the familiar juvenile self pity and antagonism to the adult world with the ancient formula of the Cinderella tales, the movie follows almost exactly the same pattern as its predecessor. With the assistance of his friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and a magical flying car, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) once again manages to escape the Dickensian oppression of his horrible aunt and uncle and flee to the great castle of Hogwarts Academy. Once there he resumes his instruction in spells, chants, and wizardry, and suffers again the inexplicable hostility of a couple of faculty members and the schemes of his schoolmate, Draco Malfoy (Tim Felton).
Aside from various supernatural interruptions and lesser adventures, the central plot involves Harry's attempts to solve another mystery, the puzzling and terrible paralysis of several students. He and his sidekicks Ron and Hermione (Emma Watson) eventually discover that deep beneath the castle, within the chamber of the title, lurks a basilisk --- here interpreted as an enormous serpent --- whose transfixing gaze, like Medusa's, freezes its victims into statues. After many confrontations and battles with magical beasts, ghosts, and other assorted horrors, Harry of course triumphs over the forces of evil and earns the regard of his friends and the faculty of dear old Hogwarts.
Aside from the pleasure of witnessing another fantastic adventure of the boy hero, the millions of fans of the books and the previous film will no doubt enjoy the return of a number of old friends in Chamber of Secrets. The gentle giant Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) shows up again, along with various faculty members, including Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and in his last performance, Richard Harris playing Professor Dumbledore in a rare bit of underacting. Other holdovers include the snobbish, sneering aristocrat Draco Malfoy, the boy you love to hate, and the enigmatic Professor Snape, played by Alan Rickman, looking ominously like Oscar Wilde (those British public schools bear a most ambiguous reputation).
Some newcomers serve to add some freshness to the essentially formulaic story. In a cruel bit of typecasting, Kenneth Branagh plays a vain, egocentric caricature of himself, a boastful wizard named Gilderoy Lockhart. Perhaps the most troubling addition, an animated creature named Dobby, a house elf, enters the story at some odd points. A mixture of the sly and the servile, Dobby looks rather like an attenuated Yoda, speaks of himself in the third person, and practices some cruelly distressing masochism, abusing himself verbally, striking himself, banging his head repeatedly against walls; he's much more horrible than the monster lurking in the depths of Hogwarts.
This version of the Potter adventures is darker, more violent, and decidedly more bizarre than its predecessor. Various spells propel characters through the air, blood flows freely through several scenes, a wonderful phoenix pecks out the eyes of the basilisk, a character explodes, and that obnoxious little Dobby continues to beat the hell out of himself. The title itself suggests a pun on chamberpot, which the film's action and images bear out: Much of the story takes place in the cavernous, haunted girls' bathroom of Hogwarts Academy, water flows all over the place, and the castle's convoluted tunnels, through which Harry runs and the chthonic monster slithers, look most intestinal.
Not surprisingly, the Potter works appear to depend on a clever combination of several literary and cultural traditions. The gothic castle, some of the wizards' attire, the language and paraphernalia of sorcery recall the medieval fantasy of one great age of adventure, while the Victorian trappings of the domestic scenes, and the clothing of Professors Snapes and Lockhart underline another age, of coziness and quaintness; the work layers the traditional British schoolboy fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries over all that antiquarianism. Finally, the use of creatures from ancient myth, like the phoenix and the basilisk, and the repetition of archetypal patterns create a powerful sense of the universal in the books and films, awakening responses much older and deeper than the usual reaction to juvenile entertainment.
Perhaps in part because of its more powerfully mythic sensibility and its consequently more disturbing darkness, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets attains a higher level of quality in style and content than its surprisingly unimaginative predecessor. The special effects, however, remain dazzling, the sets look terrific, John Williams's score sounds reassuringly like all his others, the child actors, as well as most of the distinguished adult contingent, all mug outrageously, and the movie runs almost three hours, which should presumably please all the Potterites and their parents.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Christian Coulson, David Bradley, Bonnie Wright, Tom Felton, Julie Walters; based on the novel by J.K. Rowling; screenplay by Steve Kloves; directed by Chris Columbus. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.
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