Like birds flying south, Harry Potter astride a magic-powered broom has become one of the signs of late fall/early winter. Last year's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone managed to upstage Thanksgiving, racking up well over $100 million before a single turkey had been thrown in the oven. And this year's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is poised to surpass last year's turkey shoot, if only because it opened a full week earlier. With five more installments to come, holiday lovers may wind up wishing J.K. Rowling had never taken pen to paper. Her Potterian epic has a way of devouring everything in its path. Gobble, gobble.
I only wish Chris Columbus, who's still in the director's chair, had been hit over the head with a magic wand during the past 12 months. Like Harry, Columbus approaches his sophomore year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with a new level of confidence. Unlike Harry, he still has the old level of competence. He's simply not a gifted director, as Lord of the Rings' Peter Jackson is, but The Chamber of Secrets is nevertheless a better film than The Sorcerer's Stone ' better looking, better acted, and with a few moments that nearly match the enchantment of Rowling's novels. Alas, a few moments do not a movie make.
Will the target audience care? Probably not. Illustrating the books page by page is all they desire ' so the folks at Warner Bros. believe, anyway. But at two hours and 41 minutes, The Chamber of Secrets will test the patience, not to mention the bladders, of Rowling's most loyal fans. And what's so frustrating, to those of us who don't hang on Rowling's every word, is that we can tell what a difference a little nipping and tucking ' and the occasional lopping off of whole chapters ' would make. Inside every fat movie there's a skinny movie screaming to be let out. At Chambers' two-hour mark, I was the one screaming to be let out.
Before that, there was plenty to occupy me ' Harry's basso profundo, for instance. I'm exaggerating, but his voice is clearly dropping, and one has to wonder whether our boy is prepared to do battle with the dark forces of puberty, which make Lord Voldemort look like your average schoolyard bully. The Potter books are about growing up, of course ' acquiring the magical powers of adulthood. But young Daniel Radcliffe, who does seem a little more comfortable in front of the camera this time, may not have the acting chops to illuminate the path from adolescence to pubescence and beyond. He's a cute kid, and that's about it.
All the child actors deliver their lines like child actors, pouncing on each consonant with such ferocity that you'd swear they're being paid by the syllable. The adult actors fare much better, which makes sense, given that they're some of the juiciest hams to be found in all of England. Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith are given less to do this time, alas, but Richard Harris, who died only a few weeks ago, bids us a fond farewell as Dumbledore. And Kenneth Branagh joins the troupe as a vainglorious professor who, like Branagh, has written an autobiography long before anyone asked for one. Leading with his hair, Branagh overacts up a storm.
Jason Isaacs also appears, sporting a supercilious smile and an Edgar Winter do. He's Lucius Malfoy, father of Draco, Harry's blond-haired bÃte noire. And he obviously has something to do with the mysterious Chamber of Secrets being opened after all this time, a plot point that blew past me like the seeker in a Quidditch match. Speaking of which, Columbus and his special-effects team have improved the technical quality on this installment's midair jousting extravaganza, but it still seems like a glorified videogame, and it still has very little to do with the rest of the movie, the cinematic equivalent of showing off.
It's the less flashy displays of f/x that stuck in my mind ' dishes that wash themselves, a diary that speaks in invisible ink, and these tuberous critters called mandrakes, which bring a whole new meaning to the phrase "root of all evil." One can imagine a movie that stitched together such moments into a veritable magic-carpet ride of entertainment, but Columbus isn't particularly good at putting together a scene, a sequence, an entire film. Every moment in The Chamber of Secrets weighs exactly the same. The movie doesn't expand and contract, flex and relax. It's so busy trying to entrance us that it forgets to breathe.