[29 November 2002]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
It’s likely you’ve heard already that the new Harry Potter movie is “darker” than the first. That, and star Daniel Radcliffe’s voice has dropped. Supposedly, both have to do with maturation: as the book series and its readers age (not to mention author J.K. Rowling and assembled filmmakers), they’re more able to comprehend and learn from difficult images or distressing themes. As you grow up, stuff happens.
In fact, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is “darker” than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, slightly. In particular, this has to do with its sideways engaging of race prejudice (more on this below). For the most part, however, the movies are very similar, right down to the tediously episodic structure and the assortment of mostly unrelated special-effected set pieces: the hugely elegant mess-hall meals, the cameo appearance by Nearly Headless Nick (John Cleese), the quidditch match (here more like a force-be-with-you chase scene through narrow confines than a bunch of broomsticks flying around in open air), the classrooms where some magic trick goes cutely wrong, the traipse into the shadowy woods, the scary secret at Hogwarts that must be found out. And so on.
The new film, again adapted by Steve Kloves, begins much as the old one did: Harry (Radcliffe) is feeling blue at the home of his nasty aunt and uncle (Fiona Shaw and Richard Griffiths). He endures the requisite bit of oppressive acting out: uncle blustering, aunt sniggering, cousin sniffing. The film’s metaphorical darkness makes its first appearance at Harry’s home, in the form of an unnervingly well digitized “house elf” named Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones). He comes to warn Harry not to return to Hogwarts, that some terrible fate will befall him there. And don’t you know, this makes Harry want more than ever to go back (not to mention that he absolutely hates his hateful aunt and uncle).
Unfortunately, whenever the elf believes he’s made a mistake of any kind, he launches into a little paroxysm of self-abuse, slamming his head against furniture, hitting himself with an appliance (and at these moments he veers nearly into Jar Jar Binks territory—the “other” as object of unkind humor). This routine is hilarious for young viewers, as slapstickishly violent self-abuse tends to be, perhaps especially when it’s enacted by funny little creatures with pointy ears, but it also gets old pretty quickly. Harry is mostly concerned that his uncle will discover the elf and punish Harry; he seems unbothered by the elf’s self-punishment per se.
Neither does he seem terribly troubled by the fact that Dobby is “owned” by an evil wizard family, under a spell to do his master’s bidding until he’s set free (he’s snuck out and risked his life to warn young Harry). Though Harry is at this moment an earnest kid with his own concerns—mainly, escape from the frightful home where he lives—it’s not hard to guess that he will be instrumental in Dobby’s freeing, or that he will become a better boy for it. How fortunate for him that Dobby is so clownish than no one need sympathize with him, much less identify with him. The focus is on the young white wizard learning the lesson, and to that end, Dobby appears and disappears instantaneously, so as not to worry Harry or anyone else for too long about his status as slave.
Just when it’s clear that his own life sucks immeasurably, Harry is rescued by his fellow wizard-student Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). He comes by in his dad’s flying Ford Anglia, accompanied by his redheaded siblings, all equally eager to rescue Harry and head off to Hogwarts for the new semester. The situation there is much as it was when they left: the Gryffindor and Slytherin houses remain rivals, Hagrid the Giant (Robbie Coltrane) sleeps off in his own cottage with his dog, and the same basic line-up of professors—Snape (Alan Rickman), McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Sprout (Miriam Margolyes), and Dumbledore (Richard Harris)—presides over class and cafeteria periods.
A new prof appears, the self-loving celebrity author and teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts, Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh, in a boisterous performance). Introduced at a book signing where the girls swoon and the boys make faces, Gilderoy enlists Harry’s help in signing his stacks of promotional photos to send to fans: “Celebrity is as celebrity does!” he instructs. (Ironically, perhaps, Gilderoy’s scenes are the least self-congratulatory in the movie: Branagh looks like he’s actually having fun.) Harry might take a pointer on the costs of fame and legend, as his peers and insecure adults are increasingly inclined to inflict on him their jealousy and fear. But Gilderoy’s foppery is more an object lesson in what not to do, since Harry “naturally” carries himself with poise, humility, and charm.
As before, the most important lessons in Chamber of Secrets are taught outside of classrooms, in particular, the titular chamber of secrets. And while the film spends far too much time on the tricks—CGI blue Cornish pixies, giant spiders that aren’t so nifty as those in 8 Legged Freaks, screaming mandrake roots, and a humungo and not very well realized snake that makes poor Harry look like he’s suddenly been transported into Jason and the Argonauts—it does provide several choice moments for stalwart Hermoine Granger (Emma Watson), as she learns about prejudice.
The main purveyor is the ferrety Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), who brings a particularly Aryan look to his baleful glare and assorted discriminations. It’s obvious that Malfoy is egged on by his equally small-minded and pale-maned father (Jason Isaacs) and that their combined spitefulness is a function of long-term, learned insecurity. And so, Draco despises Ron for being poor and dirty (his enthusiastically wizardy family lives simply), and is afraid of Harry’s essential Harry-ness (being legendary, sweet, heroic, and a half-breed: half-human and half-wizard). This film underlines Harry’s difference by revealing that he is a Parselmouth (he speaks “snake”), which makes him seem even more powerful and, of course, “dark” than in the first film (as even Harry doesn’t know how he has come to have this language or what he’s saying when he uses it).
The cruelest of Malfoy’s bigotries is directed against lovely, diligent Hermoine, for she is the child of muggles (humans). Malfoy actually makes poor Hermoine cry when he starts calling her names, and Harry and Ron come to realize an important lesson, articulated by another target of prejudice, Hermoine’s usual champion, Hagrid: that a wizard who is not pure-blood is called “mud-blood.” That the film (and so far, the series) is unable to represent race and race differences directly is hardly unusual. Like the old Star Trek episodes, the Potter films include occasional characters of color (black and Asian Hogwarts students) to indicate a certain “diversity,” and unlike in the old Star Trek series, they are not summarily killed off, but rather, relegated to cheering on the white heroes (one even has a comprehensible line to speak during the quidditch business.)
Amid all the other excitement that goes on in Chamber of Secrets, Hermoine’s personal encounter with Draco actually takes up very little screen time or energy, though her new friendship with gloomy ghost-girl, Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson) suggests that Hermoine herself is as free of prejudice as the great Harry, and rather remarkably patient and discerning to boot. (And Hermoine is very sadly removed from the action partway through the film, for reasons that the book’s readers know well enough.) Still, the film does address her concerns, via further displacement, in the plot concerning the chamber of secrets, which involves an apparently longstanding conflict over whether the student body will be “mixed” or “pure” of blood.
That Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets takes on this struggle as one that is “historical” as well as contemporary, is surely commendable. That it piles up a lot of episodic enchantments and digital wonders is disappointing, but not unexpected, given that it pretty much follows the first film’s formula. And Chris Columbus does havethat down: as he told Katie Couric on Today (13 November 2002), “The only reason to do a sequel to a film like is to make it better.” That’s disingenuous, of course—the reason to make a sequel to a “film like this” (which made some $967 million total gross) is to make lots more money. Still, if it can also explore a little “darkness,” metaphorical, ideological, or political, along the way, more power to it. Now, if it can only pick up the pace.