Nothing up his sleeve
'Harry Potter' sequel misses quite a few storytelling tricks
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 14, 2002
Only another wizard could help Harry Potter. That's why he needs to take the 7:17 tornado to the Emerald City, and get in line behind Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man.
And after giving out a balloon ride to Kansas, a medal and so forth, the Mighty Oz could turn to little Harry and inquire, "Say, aren't you k.d. lang?"
"No, sir, I'm Harry Potter."
"Hmmm. You look just like k.d. lang. Anyway, what do you want?"
"Sir, please, sir, I'd like a ... story."
But there are some problems that not even the mighty Wizard of Oz or the mighty wizards of Warner Bros. can solve, and that's why "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is big, dull and empty. Small kids who are entertained by aquariums, lava lamps, melting ice cream and other forms of random motion might enjoy it – when they're not peeing in their pants because of the giant snake at the end – but most human creatures who have evolved to sentience will be ground into numbness by its drear totalitarianism.
I have no idea who the fraud is: author J.K. Rowling, screen adapter Steve Kloves or hapless, chopless, effects-mad director Chris Columbus, who, come to think of it, pretty much always makes flat, dull movies ("Stepmom"!). Whatever, whichever, whoever, nobody associated with this production appears to have thought hard about storytelling – about, to borrow a felicitous phrase, the uses of enchantment.
The whole thing is a strange combination of frenzy where there should be placidity, and placidity where there should be frenzy. Nothing much happens in the story proper, but a great deal happens outside it. In other words, it looks like a movie, it sounds like a movie, you see it in a movie theater, but it's not a movie. It's like a 2 1/2-hour preview.
The film lacks what might be called a whole theory of story. It never understands the difference between dramatic incidents that amplify theme and character and build to an inevitable yet stunning conclusion, leaving the reader or viewer spent and happy; and arbitrary incidents that eat up screen time but don't advance the journey or the characters at all, lead nowhere, and wind up in a climax, no matter how spectacular, that thematically has nothing to do with what has come before. In short, nothing is connected, nothing coheres, there's no game plan, really. It's just a bunch of happenings that ape the progress of a story but never quite reach the threshold of narrative.
The movie opens with Harry, played by the unimpressive Daniel Radcliffe, unhappily ensconced in the middle-class purgatory of the real world, where his specialness merely categorizes him as an oddball. While downstairs his dreary bourgeois uncle is trying to butter up a client with the help of the rest of the bourgeois family – the movie's contempt for the English middle class is quite an explosion of pure snobbery – upstairs weird Harry is dealing with Dobby, a house elf come to visit. Dobby, a digitally pixeled nethercreature who looks like a benign gargoyle, has come to warn Harry of – well, of something. That's the movie's pathology in a nutshell: a fabulous special-effects creation of a spectacularly imagined mythic critter that is used for a few laughs and to implant a vague sense of unease into the story, and then vanishes.
All the way through, in fact, the movie overplays the mundane and fails to illuminate the dramatic. As Harry and a wizard buddy try to get back to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, they have spectacular adventures in a flying Ford Anglia, including an epic battle with a willow tree that briefly and strangely becomes something like a giant squid. To what end? To no end. This 20 minutes connects with nothing, is not a part of the rest of the story; it just is, and then it's gone.
The same is true of so much, including two conflicts with Harry's nasty blond competitor in the school world, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton and seven pounds of hair gel), one a dinnertime wand-battle in the Great Hall of Bad Boarding School Food, the other a repetition of that aerial rollerball game played in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" – all sound, all fury, narrative significance zero. The most dramatic thing that happens over the movie's entire 162 minutes: Harry takes a stairway shaped like a screaming eagle up to Albus Dumbledore's office!
It appears that behind the vague sense of unease gripping the Hogwarts school there is a mystery. But it doesn't so much lurk as loaf. And however strange are these goings-on, they are not so strange as to cause any panic or school cancellations, much less a sense of urgency or danger. In fact, here's what they cause: nothing. The plot points buttressing this supposedly increasing sense of unease are extremely tepid: The first is the warning by the Dobby, the second is some muttering that only Harry can hear, the third and fourth are the paralysis of various students, and strange warnings painted on the walls of the school. Finally Harry "solves" the case by finding a diary that explains everything, and what it explains is hardly worth the effort to get there: a secret chamber under the school where ugliness and violence lurk.
At that point the movie lurches into its best sustained sequence, which of course is completely disconnected from what came before. It feels more like outtakes from "Conan Jr., the Barbarian": Harry suddenly finds himself opposing a villain who is pretty much brand-new to the movie and who will have no meaning to those few of us who haven't committed the Potter canon to memory. This bad boy calls up his big snake, and Harry, with a sword, must fight the creature. It's quite an intense battle, if for no other reason that it's pure action, without all the magical hocus-pocus, the cutesy names, the ludicrous sentimentality for the English public school experience: It's just man vs. beast, to the death. Melville could have written it. Parents are forewarned that the really young kids might refight it in nightmares for years to come.
The immediate cast of youngsters is unimpressive. Radcliffe is indeed coming more and more into k.d. lang, with that severe shock of hair, that pale, inert, angular face, those damned cute glasses. His two cohorts are even less impressive. Pal Weasley is played by Rupert Grint with too much going on in his face; pal Hermione (Emma Watson) has too much hair, though of the three she's the sprightliest.
The rest of the cast is mostly old Brits underused and (one hopes) overpaid, with the single exception of Kenneth Branagh, who turns in an amusing if ultimately irrelevant performance as the school's most narcissistic teacher. But why waste the great Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Jason Isaacs, Fiona Shaw, John Cleese, Julie Walters and, most tragic of all, Alan Rickman in nothing roles that demand but a tenth of their formidable talents? They're simply window dressing to up the class quotient.
Actually, "Harry Potter" isn't really selling story to begin with. It seems to have struck a chord that renders story largely irrelevant: It's an almost pitch-perfect exercise in adolescent yearning, disguised (poorly) as a fairy tale.
Harry, eternal outsider, knows, as do all adolescents and most adult film critics, that he is somehow "special." The process of the movie isn't the story itself, but watching as Harry's specialness is proved, once again, to the rest of the world. He's like Holden Caulfield lost in a permanent, multimillion-dollar game of Dungeons and Dragons.
Contains mock violence, though the concluding battle with a nightmare creature is very intense.