Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
3 stars
starring Daniel Radcliffe and the Emma Watson

No serious surprises to report from the front lines in the War On All The Harry Potter Books Not Being Movies Yet. Those who liked Operation Sorcerer's Stone will be satisfied by Operation Chamber of Secrets' many special-effects sequences and the return of the beloved Harry Potter characters. Meanwhile, those who thought that Sorcerer's Stone was a too-slavish and curiously themeless depiction of the book will hardly be shocked to hear that Harry 2 is the same.

The new Harry has a number of upgrades; let's tick them off. There's Dobby the simpering computer-generated house elf, Kenneth Brannagh as the foppish Gilderoy Lockheart, a flying car, lots of spiders of varying sizes, and a giant snake. We see Ron Weasley's home life, we get a glimpse or two of bad kid Draco Malfoy's evil father Lucius, and we see what happens when you try to cast a spell with a broken wand.

So there's stuff in this movie, lots of Harry Potter stuff to look at. Looking is the avenue to satisfaction to this film, since the set and production design are as flawless as they were in the first movie. Hogwarts is huge and wizardy, the spiders are nasty and scuttly, the Quidditch match is zoomy and zippy. The pictures are fine and sure to be delightful to the target audience of under-12s.

But caring, actually feeling that there's a meaningful story unfolding in front of you? Not so great. The idea that these images are supposed to be accompanied by some kind of emotional response seems to have escaped director Chris Columbus, as it did in Harry 1.

Columbus is simply too literal-minded. In his Harry Potter films, a train is not a symbol of release, of exhilarating escape. It's a train. A spider is not an emblem of terror, of nameless dread that's gripped a frightened school. It's a giant spider. A Quidditch game is not a test of wills, a high point in the friction between competing houses. It's zooming around on brooms.

Some of the details, Rowling's feats of imagination --like the baby mandrake roots that scream and twitch as they're being repotted-- are arresting, even interesting. But the idea that anything's at stake in these scenes, or that the same thing might be at stake in successive scenes, never takes hold. Harry just goes from scene to scene, magic thing to magic thing, with no real sense of why it means anything to him other than his obligatory duty to Get To The Bottom Of Things since nobody else seems to bother.

There are a couple of themelets bonking around in the movie, to be sure. There's a condemnation of fascist schemes of racial purity that pops up in dialogue sometimes. And there seems to be some thing about not keeping secrets as well. There's a scene in which Harry talks to Dumbledore, Dumbledore asks, "Do you have anything to tell me, Harry?", and then raises his eyebrow and says in his English-actor-who-can-do-it-all-by-raising-his-eyebrow way, "Since, y'know, Harry, we're dealing with a *Chamber of Secrets* here, it might be a good idea to spill the beans on any secrets *you* might have." Harry says nothing. But at this point, that's because he's got nothing to say; he knows less than Dumbledore. Isn't this supposed to be about how keeping secrets is bad and they'll bite you in the ass when you least expect it, so shouldn't Harry at this point be keeping a secret so we see, y'know, why people do it? And shouldn't... oh, never mind, spiders.

To be fair, much of this stems from the original novel. In the context of the four books so far, Chamber of Secrets makes sense in the continuum of the series' increasing dramatic and moral complexity. By itself, though, it's the most nebulous, the most episodic, the one in which the forces of evil are the most diffuse. Columbus, a company man, took what was on the page and put it on screen, so it's hardly remarkable that the result is a movie that's nebulous, episodic and lacking in strong antagonism. A great filmmaker --Peter Jackson, say-- would have gone deeper into the book and taken pains to reinvent scenes in order to dramatize Harry's emotional development, to highlight a overarcing sense of fear. But Jackson's making better movies out of better books, so it's probably just as well.