BY LYNN LEE
Yes, the second Harry Potter movie is better than the first.
That’s really all you have to read. But stick around for the caveat — there always is one.
Despite being slightly longer, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets packs more suspense and moves a good deal faster than its predecessor, owing largely to the fact that it ditches all semblance of exposition. In tribute to its efficiency, so will I: I think I can safely assume that everyone who goes to see it knows the story already.
As a book, “Chamber of Secrets” is the weakest of the series, yet, as the movie proves, weaker books often translate into better movies. The movie works because it has a more focused, less episodic plot (and scarier monsters) than “The Sorcerer’s Stone.” And monsters, competently executed, are an easy slam-dunk for drawing in adults as well as kids. (Caveat: We’re talking scary on the level of Jurassic Park and Arachnophobia, not Alien.)
It’s much harder, however, to draw in adult viewers through delight, and in the delight department — which is what Sorcerer’s Stone, more than Chamber of Secrets, depended on, and where the movie failed — the Potter film franchise still falls short. The secret charm of the books lies not just in Rowling’s ability to spin a good yarn, but in a palpable feeling of giddy pleasure at the colorful richness, the potential for endless invention, in the parallel universe she concocted as a cheekier, cooler answer to our everyday world. The attempts to reproduce this quality in The Sorcerer’s Stone felt heavy and clunky — closer to a souped-up Willa Wonka & the Chocolate Factory than The Wizard of Oz.
The problem is less evident in the second installment, because as a whole it moves away from trying to capture that Christmas-morning mood of surprise and delight (the Weasley house, one of the highlights of the book, gets particularly short shrift) and concentrates instead on building an atmosphere of mystery and fear.
And we do get a better sense of the eerie dread, the shadows slowly growing around the edges, that oddly enough isn’t altogether realized in the book, which still carries on the breezy tone of “The Sorcerer’s Stone.” (It is only in the third installment, “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” that the narrative really begins to darken and deepen.) In the film, the castle seems darker and more twisting, the lighting seems deliberately poorer, and we are more aware of the precarious fragility of the ring of protection that surrounds Harry and his friends — fittingly captured in the hushed frailty of the late Richard Harris (in his last screen appearance) as Dumbledore.
We also get flashes of humor, provided largely by a fey and very funny Kenneth Branagh as the self-enamored celebrity teacher-cum-quack Gilderoy Lockhart. But overall, the second movie, like the first, lacks the light comic touch that distinguishes Rowling’s style. The three protagonists, too, seem more earnest and less spontaneous than in their first outing — especially Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Hermione (Emma Watson), while Rupert Grint as Ron somewhat overdoes his comically incredulous grimaces.
As for new characters, the most successful addition besides Branagh may be a girl-ghost who strikes the right balance between humor and slight creepiness. Less successful is the CGI-generated house-elf Dobby, never one of my favorite characters. (The mandrakes, however, were spot-on.)
The movie builds to an effective climax, a vast improvement on Sorcerer’s Stone, and milks the scare factor for all it’s worth. Yet even the big scares seem like variations on a familiar theme. After the raptors which crashed through the wall and stalked the children in the kitchen in Jurassic Park, there’s been nothing left but retread for scaly, predatory CG-generated reptiles. It’s also worth noting that Jurassic Park, in its time, succeeded in conjuring up that sense of childlike awe of being confronted with the impossible made real. Which makes me wonder, yet again, what Spielberg could have done with Harry Potter — though it is true that for every E.T. and Jurassic Park he’s also had a Hook or a Lost World. And there are grounds for optimism with respect to Azkaban, with the appointment of Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, whose repertoire (Y Tu Mama También, Great Expectations with Gwyneth and Ethan and A Little Princess) shows the kind of versatility and dexterity that Rowling’s books need so much.
To date, Columbus has steered prudently and brought the H.M.S. Potter, laden with gold, safely into port. For the sake of Rowling fans everywhere, though, it’s time for a risk-taker to take the helm.