The problem with translating any of the Harry Potter books to the big screen is that author J.K. Rowling has cram-packed so much delicious detail onto virtually every page of her magnum opus. As with the previous effort, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, director Chris Columbus and company have done a stand-out job of capturing the imagination if not the detail of those books.
The story concerns the eponymous chamber of secrets at
Things are darker this time out for our intrepid triumvirate. Their encounters include the ghost of a Hogwarts student doomed to spend eternity in one of the girls’ lavatories. If that isn’t a fate to give your average middle-schooler a case of the heebie-jeebies, I don’t know what is. Add to that murky doings with spiders large and small that are distinctly >not< for the faint of heart of any age. There is also a subtext that introduces themes about social justice and bigotry that will bring those issues home poignantly and effectively.
Of necessity, some things and some characters get short shrift. John Cleese as Nearly Headless Nick, the ghost of Gryffindor House where Harry resides, is once again reduced to a cameo. And though he oozes from almost every page of the book, Professor Snape, the master of potions and Harry’s implacable nemesis is barely to be seen at all, though when he is, it is once again in the able person of Alan Rickman, who can bring enough condescending malevolence to one raised eyebrow to more than get the message across.
On the other hand, what is translated is as inventive and enchanting as the legion of readers could want. Particularly good is a howler, a screamingly auditory letter sent to Ron Weasely, which not only screams its goosebump-inducing scolding, but does so by actually forming itself into a paper semblance of a mouth complete with some very nasty looking teeth.
The special effects are the equal of the first film’s. Quidditch, a sort of aerial field hocky played on flying broomsticks is much easier to follow visually that in the book, at least for me. Our first visit to a wizard’s house, too, leaves some things out, but background shots of dishes washing themselves and breakfast cooking itself is first-rate. Scenes of magical creatures are less sure. A flock of vicious blue pixies set loose on his class by Professor Lockhart are a delightfully kinetic bunch of havoc-makers with nasty sharp teeth and claws, but the more pivotal character of Dobby, the house elf, is rather clunky, more along the lines of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-action creatures than the smooth and slick computer-generated creatures of the 21st century.
Daniel Ratcliff’s Harry is more mature physically and emotionally. The round face has lengthened and the demeanor is more assured. Emma Watson’s Hermione has tamed the notoriously wild hair for this installment, which I found to be rather a shame in a gone-Hollywood sort of way, but otherwise remains the know-it-all you can’t help but like in spite of herself and yourself, for that matter. Rupert Grint as Ron Weasely, the hapless third member of the team, is still the best thespian of the three. With a rubbery face that can go from confused to terrified in less time than it takes to tell, he’s the one with the most childlike quality and the one in which we invest the most emotional stake. Robbie Coltrane returns as Hagrid, the slow but loyal giant with a penchant for dangerous creatures who takes Harry under his wing. Make of that what you will. Richard Harris’ Albus Dumbldore, the Merlin-like headmaster of Hogwarts, and Maggie Smith’s Minerva McGonagall, the deputy headmistress, make a nice sweet and tart balance that Harris’ recent death makes bittersweet.
The new face this time out is Kenneth Branagh as the new master in charge of teaching the defense against the dark arts, a position with all the job security of Spinal Tap’s drummer. Sporting the evocative moniker of Gilderoy Lockhart, he’s a supercilious narcissist of dubious magical skills more interested in courting publicity than cultivating learning. Branagh brings him to life with the scene-chewing élan of a hammy Shakesperean actor and a hair-do that would do a lemon meringue pie proud.
A word about the length, which is 161 minutes. That is longer than most kids can deal with, but the audience of kids that I saw it with were so caught up in the action, that the usual fidgeting and worse was all but non-existant.
For those who haven’t read the Harry Potter books, this is a nice introduction, fully of ancient gothic castles, odd magical creatures, paintings with subjects who move, and a whiff of real danger. It is no substitute, though, for the books themselves, rich as they are with enough imagination to engage even the most jaded of readers of any age. Each volume would be enough for a miniseries of several hours’ length and while that might happen one day, this installment will tide us over just fine until then.