It's sophomore year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the air is thick with menace. Someone or something is trying to drive Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) away: perhaps the same person (or entity) who has opened the "Chamber of Secrets," a hidden vault containing a monster that petrifies (literally) "mudblood" students—those born of one or more "muggle" parent. Could it be the work of the indefatigable anti-miscegenist Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), father of that Syltherin snotnose Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton)? Or is this comeback No. 2 of the dread Lord Voldemort?
All very eventful. But the major occurrence in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Warner Bros.) is … puberty. Where did the cute boy soprano from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) go? Only a month or two of summer is supposed to have passed since freshman year: Is this stringy, whey-faced baritone really Our Little Wizard?
As I sat through this sequel—which is more entertaining than the first film but still two hours and 40 minutes—with no bathroom breaks, Mom and Dad—I passed the time wondering if AOL Time Warner had thought to protect its investment with computer simulations of Radcliffe, Emma Watson (Hermione), and Rupert Grint (Ron) over the next decade. What will these tykes look like on the other side of the Great Adolescent Divide? For a lot of child actors, the early teens aren't pretty: Those marvelous features have a tendency to grow at different rates. (Even the comeliest kids have weird stuff happen to them. Remember when all you could register on the face of Brooke Shields was her new Frankenstein brow?) Given the billions at stake, is someone at the studio monitoring these kids' hormones? Are there dermatologists on call night and day? We're talking sixsequels, folks. A movie about the care and feeding of the child stars of Harry Potter would be more entertaining than the thing itself. It would have some real life in it.
I write that as someone who treasures J.K. Rowling's Potter books and feels there is plenty of real life in them to harvest. While it's true, as Chris Suellentrop has suggested in a lively Slate takedown, that Harry is something of a fast-food hero—an opportunistic blend of nerd-outsider and jock-celebrity—he is also our way into a richly imagined alternate universe. Even in the homogenized Hogwarts, there are hints of rage toward the English "muggle" world for its repressive good taste, its vicious civility. And Harry's powers are no less earned than those of Clark Kent, a superhero for no reason other than his Krypton DNA, or Luke Skywalker, whose affinity for the Force is surely a genetic bequest from Dear Old Darth. (Batman is often cited as the most self-made superhero, but he could never have fashioned that particular persona without a whopping inheritance.) The Potter mythology might prove to be even more complex than those above: Increasingly, Harry may be seen as less the creation of his murdered parents than of their murderer, who gave the baby some of his own fearsome power along with that lightning-bolt scar.
Suellentrop also argues that because of Harry's innate gifts, Dumbledore's final homily—that one's destiny is not a matter of one's abilities but one's choices—is specious. But Harry can be a good caretaker of his talent or a bad one. The real dramatic problem, at least to date, is that there's no indication he might ever be tempted by the "Slytherin" side of his nature. For all the trauma of his childhood, Harry is stupefyingly good-natured.
The same might be said of director Chris Columbus, who in the last movie brought little to his work beyond an eagerness to please his corporate masters. This time, at least, he seems committed to thrilling the kiddies even more: Chamber of Secrets is darker and scarier, with lots more incident, and several of the set pieces have a Spielbergian kick. When Harry and Ron fly their magic Ford Anglia into a giant, gnarly tree with the witty name of "The Whomping Willow," it flings the car around and bashes in the doors and windows. The sequence ends with a hilarious button when the Ford ejects the two boys and plunges huffily into the dark forest—it would rather live feral than be commandeered by male adolescents. The redheaded Rupert Grint, as Ron, is maturing into a wonderful clown: When a talking spider that's literally (pace, Woody Allen) the size of a Buick cues a furious arach attack, the spiders are upstaged by Grint's Stan Laurel-like cringing—by that mouth that, spread in fear, threatens to swallow his entire face.
The plusses in this film come close to overwhelming the Christmassy blandness that dogs Columbus' work. There is an effusive new computer-generated creature—a stick-figure elf—called Dobby, who could easily have emerged as the season's most egregious Jar-Jar-like irritant. But as scripted by Steve Kloves and animated by Jim Mitchell and Nick Davis, he's a gruesomely determined self-flagellator. Mildly rebuked by Harry, he will bash his head furiously against wooden drawers or announce he needs to iron his hand: He's a merchandisable extension of the underclass element that gravitates to masochism over revolt. And every time Kenneth Branagh saunters onto the screen as the braggart Gilderoy Lockhart—celebrated author and Defense Against the Dark Arts professor—the movie goes into a Shakespearean comic sphere. With his hair swept up and his toasty, plummy tones, his Lockhart is a lyrically self-infatuated fool—abetted, in several delirious scenes, by animated portraits of himself twinkling back at him.
Branagh's genius almost distracts you from the fact that this billion-dollar English cast has been otherwise criminally frittered away. Thanks to her voice, with its weird, helium-infused sensuality, Shirley Henderson makes an impression as a ghost who haunts the ladies' loo. But Alan Rickman, who nearly walked off with the last film as the sour Professor Snape, resembles here a tired, queeny refugee from a Greenwich Village Halloween parade. Robbie Coltrane's Hagrid is at one point carted off to a horrific prison—even so, he has no chance to deepen the portrait he established in Sorceror's Stone. And what kind of director could confine the greatest living English-language comedienne, Maggie Smith, to a few blasé reaction shots? What kind of director could confine the most resourceful of all living British farceurs, John Cleese, to a couple of monosyllabic drift-throughs as a semi-decapitated ghost? A director with more money than talent.
It might not matter that Chamber of Secrets goes on for so long except that Columbus' storytelling is so unvaried. Because he has these vast sets to show off, he starts nearly every major scene from on high, dollying down to the level of the characters. His wand is his wad. Columbus' pacing is metronomical, with no shot held for more than a couple of beats. When one of the major characters is found petrified—out of commission for the rest of the movie and a huge loss—he doesn't linger for a second longer than he needs to to make his narrative point. When, in the coming weeks, you see Steven Soderbergh's Solaris (opening Nov. 27), you'll see how a great and personal director can turn a cheesy sci-fi scenario into a profound threnody of grief. Chris Columbus takes great and personal themes and makes them almost inconsequential.
Here's the tidy truth about Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Given everything that happens in Rowling's story, it's not long enough. This isn't a two-hour film inflated by pretension (or contractual fidelity) to two hours and 40 minutes; it's a four-hour film reduced by a businesslike hack to two-thirds of its rightful length. I can't think of a movie this long that has left me so starved for a movie. The best news is that Columbus has sailed from England for the New World. The director of the third Harry Potter film will be Alfonso Cuarón, who—as I said, in my review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone—would have been the ideal choice to begin with. Cuarón, who directed the modern children's classic A Little Princess (1995) and the horny teen classic Y Tu MamáTambién (2001), won't start from high above the sets and find his way to the characters. He'll start with the emotions and dolly his way to the myth. Just like J.K. Rowling.
Note: Thirty or so readers have castigated me (some very Draco Malfoy-like indeed) in e-mails for calling this Harry's "sophomore year" instead of his "second year." This is a seven-year program, I'm informed by Brits and others, which begins in what Americans would call seventh grade and continues to graduation. Harry's sophomore year by Yank lights would be 10th grade—which means Volume 5, which J.K. Rowling has yet to publish.
According to my Webster's unabridged, one of three definitions of sophomore (Greek sophos, wise, and moros, foolish) is "a person in his second year of any enterprise; as Senator Brown is a sophomore in Congress."
Back to school, everyone.