Warner Brothers turns out to be a lot more reliable than writer J. K. Rowling who promised her publisher the fifth book in the Harry Potter series for 2001. Now, late in 2002, there’s still no sign of it. Warner Brothers, on the other hand, has promptly rolled out its second annual Harry Potter film just in time for Christmas shopping for all the glorious product tie-ins.
The issue for Warners is, and will continue to be, how to keep the franchise fresh. Read a story to the kids at bedtime and their wondrously fertile imaginations will flesh out the words with their own unique images. Put the story on film and the kids’ imaginations are put on hold as they far more passively absorb what is dished up for them. Once the imagery is defined, it will need to be constantly refurbished and replenished.
The first film in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, established the premise of young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), trapped like a sort of male Cinderella, as the mistreated ward of his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon. Harry escapes to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where he follows in the footsteps of his deceased parents who themselves were once students there. As a freshman, Harry both initiated his studies of the occult and, in the rousing climax, triumphed against the evil wizard Voldemort. He also established his key friendships with Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), she the very essence of the overachieving student.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets returns for Harry’s sophomore year at Hogwarts. Many of the characters from the first edition are present again, with some new ones added both for novelty and for plot progression. Notable among the newcomers is a CGI character, Dobby, a Uriah Heep of an elf given to extremes of self-punishment, and Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh enjoying himself thoroughly), Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts, all puffery and salemanship, but, in truth, a phony, unable to deliver the goods.
Some proven spectacles and effects are back–the major sporting event called Quidditch, the living paintings, Ron’s owl which crashes into windows–and some fresh ones are added: a flying car, a frying pan than washes itself, screaming mandrake roots, a phoenix that is reborn from its ashes. There’s just enough of the old to feel at home and provide continuity, just enough of the new to keep things fresh and all the effects are state of the art.
Of course, the forces of good must battle the forces of evil and, as in the first edition, Harry will descend to very scary places and face a formidable opponent before the expected triumph. Parents should be alerted to the greater potential in this material than in the earlier edition for frightening young children. Discretion, as they say, is advised.
Kids are expected to pick up on the lessons taught in Harry Potter-land; they’re laid out quite clearly–the virtue of being able to ask for help when you need it, for example, and the greater importance of the choices one makes as against the skills one has. Adults might find other aspects of somewhat greater interest, such as the emphasis on the discrimination by the very blond Slytherin House leader Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) against the "mudbloods," students (such as Hermione) whose parentage is not pure wizard. The suggestions of Nazism and classism, too, are laced through this material.
As in the first edition, Chamber has some of the best actors on the screen playing the adult roles. Making welcome return visits are Maggie Smith (echoing Jean Brody), the late Richard Harris, remarkable Fiona Shaw, Julie Waters, Robbie Coltrane, and Alan Rickman. John Hurt is sadly missing this time around, but Branagh and another newcomer, Miriam Margolyes as Professor Sprout (who teaches a class in raising mandrakes, plants with magical powers) add new energy to the mix. And, as in the first edition, it is frustrating to get so little of these characters; they’re barely more than cameo appearances. Nonetheless, it all comes together largely due to the charm and individualized characters of the three central children, even though poor Hermione spends a large portion of the film literally petrified. The biggest challenge for future episodes will be to make these kids grow and change; if they don’t, even characters as well drawn as these will stagnate and become dull.