a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
Harry Potter and Company are growing up.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is taller and his voice is deeper. His best friend Ron (Rupert Grint) is fluctuating between high-squeaky cries of panic and low ominous murmurs of panic. The clever and somewhat haughty Hermione (Emma Watson) is no longer a tyke; she’s looking more like a dream date. And the challenges these three amigos face in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets are more frightening and difficult than last time. In fact, the new troubles at Hogwarts School for Wizards are so intense that even the supremely powerful Professor Dumbledore is threatened, and his faculty members are seriously considering shutting down the school.
But these kids have the guts to face these tougher obstacles. And, fortunately for the audience, their story is told with more confidence, better pacing, and more elaborate special effects. Instead of assaulting us with an over-loud John Williams score, Columbus turns down the volume and trusts Rowling, the talented cast, and screenwriter Steve Kloves, to draw us in. While a few will disagree, I found Chamber of Secrets to be funnier, scarier (in a good way), and more exciting than Sorceror’s Stone.
Here’s the basic premise, for readers who haven’t read the book: In spite an elf’s harsh warning that Harry not return to Hogwarts for a new school year, Harry makes a dramatic return to the campus. He arrives only to discover that there is a terrorist… so to speak … on the loose. This mystery villain has opened a “Chamber of Secrets.” As a result, Hogwarts residents are one by one being turned into stone. And all the while, the troublemaker is writing messages on the walls that are worse than bathroom graffiti. (Well, in a strange sense, they are bathroom graffiti. You’ll see what I mean.)
Once again, Harry and his friends are smarter than their teachers, and thus they have to investigate the mystery themselves, breaking school rules along the way. Their investigation is complicated by a new member of the teaching staff, Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), whose talents for fending off the Dark Arts are rather questionable.
Chamber of Secrets suffers from the same errors in writing and direction as last time … but not as badly. Once again, it’s too long. At the 2-hour-and-10-minute mark, Lockhart says, “The adventure ends here!” He’s way off. There’s still a long way to go. The Lord of the Rings can run three hours and leave us wanting more, because every moment is packed with complex storytelling. Potter’s stories are simple and often sentimental. The last fifteen minutes of this film could easily have been five. Imagine if the throne room scene at the end of the original Star Wars movie had lasted ten minutes while the rebels applauded the heroes — that would have been unnecessary indulgence. Both Potter films indulge too much.
But moviegoers will probably find a stronger emotional connection with the heroes this time around for several reasons.
One: The idea of hidden villains is more and more real to us, as tales of terrorists and snipers dominate the news.
Two: The director and his cast are far more confident this time around. Columbus picks up the pace and thrills us with wild visual trickery. (If you’re scared of spiders, be warned: this film’s spiders are scarier than any I’ve seen in a film. That includes Eight Legged Freaks and Arachnophobia.)
The returning grownups (Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, John Cleese, Alan Rickman) don’t do anything new with their characters; they seem to just show up and hit the same notes, unfortunately. But newcomers Kenneth Branagh, Rosemary Harris, Miriam Margolyes, and The Patriot’s Jason Isaacs bring so much humor and enthusiasm to the proceedings, they’ll make George Lucas’s straitjacketed Star Wars actors want to switch franchises. In his self-effacing turn as a self-absorbed professional, Branagh is a hoot. I haven’t seen a distinguished actor have this much fun goofing around since the last time Alec Baldwin hosted Saturday Night Live.
Three: Most of us have been through adolescence. And if we are to take seriously the symbols in this installment, we cannot ignore that this story is about Harry, Ron, and Hermione maturing sexually.
Before you write me off as “reading into things”, try this on:
Most of the drama takes place in frightful encounters with snakes and dark caves and tunnels. Ron is embarrassed of his wand, which he has not yet mastered, but Harry is a pro. They take their wands into deep dark places, trembling with fear. And what is the room in which they are presented with the ultimate test? The girls’ restroom. Come on, guys… when you were kids, the ladies’ room was a placed charged with mystery and even a little fear and trembling, right?
In this creepy bathroom, Hermione is afraid to show her face because she’s struggling with some embarrassing physical transformations. And surprise! There’s a she-ghost haunting the stalls, one who apparently had a traumatic encounter with a rather phallic threat.
The final conflict involves a male who is threatening a female. He intends to take advantage of her, in a way. And Harry must learn to overcome his fear of the snake. He must also not give in to his mastery of “snake language.” He must instead humble himself and, unlike the villain, reach out to the girl out of love rather than selfishness.
Or maybe I’m just reading into it….
This metaphor-play is cleverly done, and it says good things about growing up and overcoming fear with love.
But I am still troubled by some of the storytelling in these Potter stories. Rowling is so hooked on having Harry break the rules that kids are going to get the wrong message. Rules at Hogwarts seem made to be broken. The heroes rarely act responsibly. They just assume they know best, and they charge right on past the best counsel. The teachers, upon catching them, smile and congratulate them. Parents, I encourage you to see this film with your kids and discuss with them the fact that most rules you have set down for them are not made in ignorance.
And what about the magic that has so many fundamentalists up in arms? The magic is the bit of fun that makes these morality plays interesting and fresh. These flying brooms are not meant to be taken any more seriously than flying children in Peter Pan. Magic serves as an imaginative symbol, for talent, virtues, tests, and mysteries. We see magic employed to get the dishes washed, to knit blankets, to tell time … tasks we have used technology to solve in ways that seem rather magical in our own world. There’s also a magical alcove that works like the transporter room in Star Trek. Kids that come away from Harry Potter wanting to learn real spells or pursue pagan religions are indeed uniquely foolish individuals. I have yet to meet any kids… or parents… who have personally plunged into Satanism as a result. But I have heard many testimonies of parents and teachers finding good lessons for their kids in the Potter stories. (Of course, these stories should be off-limits for very young children who have not yet learned the difference between make-believe and reality.)
If you are censoring Harry Potter at your home, I would also recommend you censor Alice in Wonderland, for fear your kids might do drugs. Cinderella features magic spells as convincing as Harry Potter’s, so that also must go. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will give your kids giant dentist bills. The Chronicles of Narnia puts a lot of emphasis on swordplay and war. The Jungle Book is perhaps the most dangerous story of all, since it might influence your child to run into the wilderness in hopes of befriending a bear. And turn off those Saturday morning Looney Toons unless you want your kids getting preoccupied with mail-order explosives (which do exist and are indeed dangerous.)
In other words, make sure your kids know the difference between make-believe magic, which is meant to be fun and meaningful, and real-life conjuring, which has nothing to do with brooms and changing birds into goblets.
Okay… that’s enough of the common sense prescriptions.
I would echo a host of others who have discovered that Harry Potter’s most prominent themes are uniquely Christian. This episode emphasizes that we should show love and respect to all kinds of people, whatever their bloodline, and that in fact we should lay down our lives for them. The appearance of a phoenix, who dies and rises from the ashes, introduces a powerful metaphor into the series, one that has long been seen as a symbol of Christ. Or take Professor Dumbledore — the wise and loving authority who gives up his throne, and yet remains available to the heroes, whose power will redeem them if only they remember to honor him. The villain’s symbol is, of course, a serpent, one who will be overcome by a hero whose weapon appears during an act of faith and courage.
Perhaps the thing that pleased me most about Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was seeing that young Harry has finally begun to show signs of being the Big Deal that everyone says he is. In the first film, I wondered why he was the hero. He hardly did anything. And for most of this film, he merely stumbles around discovering what other people have done. He’s not much of a detective; the clues fall right in his lap. But as the film draws to a close, Harry summons up real courage and charges into the darkness, risking his life to save his friends. It’s an exciting moment, and one that gives me hope that the series may continue to improve.
It’s good enough that I might just start taking an interest in the books after all.
PARENTAL NOTE: Caution. Some extremely intense and frightening (even for grownups) situations regarding enormous spiders and snakes. This one is NOT for younger children, as the conflicts are at time quite nightmarish. A good comparison might be Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.