Mild About 'Harry'

Chris Columbus's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" may have made many hundreds of millions of dollars, but only kids seemed to be genuinely enthusiastic about it. (A lot of kids, to be sure.) Grown-ups, who were equally bewitched by J. K. Rowling's book, felt let down by the movie: it followed the letter of the tale but missed the spirit, mistaking special effects for magic. Would the filmmakers learn from their mistakes in the second installment? Wanting to give the movie the benefit of the doubt, I avoided reading "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" before I saw Columbus's follow-up. This time the twists and turns of Harry's adventures at Hogwarts--where he encounters even greater perils--could take me by surprise.

The real surprise, alas, is that "Chamber of Secrets" has been turned into a kiddie monster movie. It is aimed at an older audience this time--tween and teenage boys. Now the walls of Hogwarts are defaced with dire warnings written in blood. Harry and Ron are terrorized by an army of giant spiders that scuttle about like stragglers from "Starship Troopers." Our hero, no longer the diffident, uncertain wizard, wields a sword in mini-Schwarzenegger style as he faces down a gargantuan snake that is sure to traumatize the under-6 set, and just as likely to produce yawns from elders who have sat through one too many creature-filled Hollywood action extravaganzas. Somehow I don't think this is what Rowling had in mind. The monsters are all straight out of the book, but they are vanquished briskly on the page. Rowling never belabors the violence; Columbus can't think of anything else to do. For him, the action set pieces are the movie's raison d'etre, and they contribute mightily to the bloated 2-hour, 45-minute running time.

Before it degenerates into Indiana Potter and the Chamber of Doom, the movie holds promise. Cinematographer Roger Pratt has replaced John Seale, and the images are crisper and less murky. The three young stars--Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson--radiate a newfound confidence. Kenneth Branagh adds a nice flourish of comic relief as Gilderoy Lockhart, the celebrity Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, whose towering self-regard is matched only by his magical incompetence. Further chuckles are supplied by the computer-generated Dobby the House Elf (voice of Toby Jones), a mischief-making masochist whose servility disguises his true intentions. Alan Rickman, the highlight of "Sorcerer's Stone," takes a back seat here; villainy honors go to Jason Isaacs's Lucius Malfoy (blond father of blond Draco). Isaacs, memorable as the bad Brit in "The Patriot," oozes freeze-dried evil. Sadly, the recent death of Richard Harris adds a special poignance to his final turn as the great wizard Dumbledore. His sweet, whispery line readings sound as if they're etched on delicate, aged parchment.

Columbus has boasted that "Chamber" is faster paced than the original, because it's not bogged down with exposition. He doesn't seem to realize that the exposition--also known as character development--is what gives the tale charm. Someone coming to this movie without having seen the first would have no sense of what makes brainy, supercilious Hermione special. Steve Kloves's script is so busy keeping the action coming that the quirks of Rowling's characters get lost. Yes, "Chamber of Secrets" moves with a brisk stride, but speed isn't necessarily an improvement if it flattens out the emotional landscape. "Chamber of Secrets" seems even more an impersonal studio project than the first--a trend that perhaps Alfonso Cuaron ("A Little Princess," "Y Tu Mama Tambien"), the next installment's gifted director, can buck, if Warner Bros. lets him.

Columbus's movie ends (I'm not giving anything away) with a standing ovation in the Hogwarts dining hall that's meant to be a rousing emotional moment. But oddly, the object of the celebration hasn't done anything in the course of the movie to warrant the outburst--he's been on the sidelines of the action. The scene, which isn't in the book, is just a generic feel-good climax arbitrarily pasted on, and the filmmakers obviously think nobody will notice. But it hints at why the Harry Potter movies aren't half as wonderful as they ought to be, why they feel created from the outside in. Magic isn't made by committee.

Mild About 'Harry' | News