Sunday, July 12, 2009

Franchise Flashback: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

The second Harry Potter film, Chamber of Secrets, once again directed by Chris Columbus and adapted by Steve Kloves, is an interesting film, poised on the brink of the maturity the films would develop while still keeping a foot firmly in the kid-friendly zone. Darkness is starting to creep around the edges but this is still very much a kids’ film, broad and accessible with only teases of the direction the franchise will go. This is a film that simmers with an underlying creepiness, an uneasy sense of danger, but it never explodes into full-blown terror. The students at Hogwarts are threatened by a mysterious menace and the creaky camera angles and slow pans down dark hallways help to close the danger in on the characters.

It’s fun to see the kids (Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint) start to grow in the craft of acting. The first film found them naturalistic with the kind of easy presence that child actors can have where they seem to be barely aware of the artifice of it all. Here, the untrained magic is gone. They’re miniature professionals by now, but it’s astonishing how skilled they are this early in their careers. The adult cast is, once again, uniformly excellent with the added bonus of the welcome addition of Kenneth Branagh playing the delightfully loopy Professor Gilderoy Lockheart. Branagh delivers hilarious line readings made even funnier by his pauses, his shifting eyes, and his easy, lopsided grin. He provides a vibrant lightheartedness matched only by the kids’ naturally buoyant and quick-witted dispositions. Together, the four of them do much to ward off the darkness of the plot that could easily have slipped the whole film into ponderousness.

Once again, the score from John Williams is superb, as is the production design. The effects work is a little sharper this time around, more easily convincing than the often clunky sequences the first time around. The artisans behind the franchise have gained confidence from their work in the first film and seem to be using the confidence to great effect here, allowing themselves to push their crafts further than before. In general, the look and sound of the picture is even sharper and more refined than before (listen to those spiders in the forest, especially in surround sound), expanding with the expanding needs of Rowling’s plot.

Despite that expanding plot, the adaptation by Kloves makes slightly better sense of what to cut and what to keep when pruning the plot from book to film. The film plunges into the plot proper and moves much quicker than the first film. The puzzle-solving climax of the first has been replaced with a more satisfying action beat. These were the books’ climaxes too, but this one translates better to film. Unfortunately the movie then takes too long a time to finally end, stalling through a slightly unnecessary dialogue scene and then dribbling into a puddle of sentimentality that doesn’t quite fit by excessively applauding a character (charming though he may be) that has been pushed to the sidelines for most of the plot.

But no matter, the film is still an entertaining experience, faster, funnier, and creepier than the first, if ultimately a smidge less satisfying. Even though it repeats some mistakes and makes new ones, there is an admirable sense of growth and change shifting within the filmmaking, rare within franchises of this magnitude, fixing what was barely broken to begin with. This is an attitude that will serve the franchise well. The craftsmen behind the undertaking realized they did a great job the first time and, instead of growing complacent looking at the box office numbers and patting themselves on the back, decided to best themselves. If it didn't kill its momentum in its last few scenes - and was a bit more streamlined throughout - the movie as a whole would be up to the task of besting its predecessor.

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