Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, November 17, 2016

RECENT WATCHES: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Following the obvious box office success of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the producers of the series felt no need to shake things up on the production end of things. Chris Columbus would return for the second entry in the series, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” It would be the “Home Alone” filmmaker’s final trip to Hogswart. Though I can’t say why, since this one would be an even more colossal success. As a kid, this was both my favorite book and film in the series, which may explain why I still like this one a fair amount.

“Chamber of Secrets” does not stray too much from the formula established last time. Once again, the film begins with Harry quarreling with the Dursleys, eventually upsetting their muggle existence with some magical shenanigans. For a second time, someone comes to rescue Harry, causing a big scene. Instead of Hagrid and his umbrella, it’s Ron in a flying car. Once at the school, a mystery emerges, tied to the academy’s history. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have to utilize their various skills in order to figure out what’s going on. Both films conclude in a secret chamber under Hogwarts. There, some incarnation of Voldemort is revealed to be behind it all.

Though following the story beats laid out last time, the sequel generally does a better job of pulling the viewer in. Unlike “Sorcerer’s Stone,” which staked its story line on an obvious red herring, this one is a little more involving. Actual lives are on the line, as numerous unsuspecting people end up petrified, including a character we actually care about like Hermione. The clues are laid out in a more satisfying manner, involving Hagrid’s past and Hogwarts’ legends. Most importantly, Harry grows more in this entry. He questions his own heritage and abilities, while being more active during the climax.

The second year at Hogwarts also develops the wizarding world a little more. We see more of Ron’s family, getting to know his parents and sister closer. There’s a kind of cute sequence involving a magical form of teleportation, which Harry hasn’t gotten the hang of yet. Dobby the house elf brings with him his own rules, showing there’s such a thing as a persecuted underclass in the wizardery world. This isn’t the only sign of the magic’s dark side we get. There’s such a thing as magical racism, as “mudbloods” – those with a non-magical parent – are discriminated against by some. Further solidifying themselves as the party of assholes, we learn that the Slytherin house was founded by a racial supremacist. This is why Drago, his dad, and Professor Snape appear to be such douche bags. Prejudice is built into their ideology.

If I’m being totally honest, the real reason I like “Chamber of Secrets” is because it has way cooler monsters in it. The CGI used to bring Dobby to life is better then anything in the first film and his artificial quality brings an intentional creepiness to the house elf. A nifty looking mandrake plant appears later, a root-like fetus with a fatal scream. (The script leaves out the mandrake’s distinctly non-PG origin though.) We meet Fawkes, Dumbledore’s pet phoenix, who is mostly brought to life via an impressive puppet. My favorite of the creatures is Aragog, Hagrid’s pet giant spider. The sequence devoted to the huge arachnids is one of my favorite in the series, with the massive tarantula speaking with a foreboding voice and hanging out in a dark, cobweb strewn corner of the forest.

The special effects, in general, have improved a lot. Maybe they had more money or maybe Columbus realized wonky CGI wasn’t the best choice. There are plenty of digital effects in “Chamber of Secrets” but they are balanced more with practical puppetry and animatronics. The best example being the basilisk itself. A big ass snake, the creature is kept off-screen through most of the story. Since Harry hears its whispered commands to kill, the serpent’s appearance is built up to. When the enormous beast slithers on-screen, it makes an impression. A huge puppet of the snake’s head was built, which actually interacts with the actors. The last act – a tense crawl through underground tunnels followed by a battle to the death – is a big improvement to last time’s underwhelming test of ability.

Now, plenty of the annoying quirks of young adult literature are present. The characters don’t spend nearly the entire film chasing it but a MacGuffin is still present, in the form of a magical journal. This journal does lead to a nicely done sequence, when a present day character slips into a memory, an inventive way to spruce up a standard flashback. Some plot devices crop up near the end, with just barely enough foreshadowing not to qualify as deus ex machinas. Such as the healing property of phoenix tears nonchalantly being mentioned. Except for the sudden appearance of a significant sword, which really does come out of nowhere.

The cast has continued to grow into their roles. Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson continue to be natural choices for their parts, eventually adding some vulnerability to the characters. Even Rupert Grint has lost some of his rough edges. Richard Harris gets to do a little more, even if he’s mostly still confined to the role of mentor. This was Harris’ final performance before his death and, if he was sick, he shows no sign of it. Alan Rickman’s part is reduced but he still brings some sinister glee to his scenes. Among the new additions, Kenneth Branagh is delightfully hammy as Lockhart, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who is a self-obsessed ass and a total fraud. Jason Isaacs is also perfectly cast as Malfoy’s father, an even bigger elitist scumbag then his son.

By dialing down the “gee shucks” quality present in part one, “Harry Power and the Chamber of Secrets” emerges as the superior flick. The pacing is a little tighter, even with a run time that veers uncomfortably close to three hours. The story holds more surprises and more interesting reveals. Most pressingly to me, the addition of more bad ass monsters draws me in and keeps my attention. I mean, there’s even a killer tree in one scene! The wizard filled franchise recovers a bit in its second entry, giving me hope that this retrospective won’t be a total beginning-to-end slog. [7/10]

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