Thursday, February 19, 2015

The 6 Best and 6 Worst Features in the Second Harry Potter Movie

Truth be told, I love Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and I think it's one of the best films in the series. That being said, certain unfortunate tendencies began to rear their ugly heads in this, the second, Harry Potter film, and that would be far more forgivable if they hadn't spawned a movies-long tradition of creating yawning plot holes and inconsistent characterization. The second Harry Potter film cuts out significant portions of the book - including Nearly-Headless-Nick's deathday party, Lockhart's ill-advised Valentine's Day festivities, and all of Peeves's mischief - but overall, it's a strong adaptation that rarely strays too far from the book's plot or the logic of Rowling's fantasy universe. I've already discussed the fifth film in a previous post; here are the 6 best and 6 worst features of the second Harry Potter film:


6. Ron's reactions
Of all the child performers in the Harry Potter series, the unheralded genius was Rupert Grint. Whether it's disgust for the gooey self-regard and silly vanity of Lockhart, unholy terror of a nest of gigantic arachnids ("Spiders... why couldn't it have been 'follow the butterflies'"), or panic as the Whomping Willow takes a good swipe at his Ford Anglia, Grint's reactions to the scenes around him are unfailingly perfect. Grint is never for a moment out of character and his willingness to both see the ridiculous in others and act ridiculous himself keep Rowling's wicked sense of humor alive in the series.

5. The Dursleys have a dinner party and lock Harry in his room
Some of the best cast actors in the entire film franchise were Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, and Harry Melling as Harry's revolting relatives, the Dursleys. Their scenes are often the funniest in the films and in Chamber of Secrets they're particularly good in two scenes, one in which they prepare to entertain dinner guests and another in which they try to prevent Harry from escaping out his window. Griffiths, who sadly passed away in 2013, clearly relished playing Uncle Vernon and it's a joy to watch his performance. These actors' impeccable delivery make their scenes the most consistently entertaining throughout the series.

4. Richard Harris as Dumbledore
Another of the best cast members, Richard Harris, tragically passed away after completing the second film. Though Michael Gambon does a credible enough job, Harris embodied the complicated character and his interpretation of Dumbledore is definitive. Harris had a gentle whimsy, compassionate depth, and, for all his mildness, an aura of powerful magical ability. While Gambondore teetered on the edge of self-parodying gravitas, Harris as Dumbledore was infallibly the complex, waggish, formidable wizard, a clear descendant of Merlin, of Rowling's creation. His passing left a gaping hole in the franchise that no actor, no matter how accomplished, could fill.

3. Creature designs
The creature designs are fabulous in Chamber of Secrets, from the mandrakes to Aragog and his hordes of arachnid compatriots. Though Dobby looks a bit less like Putin in my own imagination, the house elf, rendered digitally, is a compelling, convincing, and very sympathetic character, though at least some of the credit should be given to Toby Jones's voice performance. Fawkes the phoenix and the basilisk, rendered both digitally and with animatronic puppetry and other practical effects, both invariably convince the viewer that they are real, living and breathing creatures. The success of the creature design in this film can in large part be attributed to the blended use of computer graphics and practical effects, though the extraordinary work done on Dobby shows how amazing CGI can be when done well.

2. The climactic battle with the basilisk
The climax of the film is, of course, Harry's battle with the basilisk. A complex fight scene involving a lot of effects and fight choreography (particularly tricky given the precision required for the effects), the lengthy battle is one of the most impressive set pieces in the series. Chamber of Secrets is arguably the most cinematic of the books and this scene, brilliantly executed, is one of the most satisfying action sequences in contemporary filmmaking. From Christian Coulson as the spine-chillingly handsome and already vicious teenaged Voldemort to the stunning Chamber of Secrets set, this is a great moment for the series overall.

1. Polyjuice transformation
The Polyjuice potion was an essential part of Harry's adventures and it makes its first appearance in this film. In the book, its effects are described as "a horrible melting feeling, as the skin all over [Harry's] body bubbled like hot wax" - that potent imagery is exactly what is rendered onscreen, as Harry transforms into Goyle. It's a far more interesting and convincing transformation process that the simplified version used in later Harry Potter films, most prominently in Deathly Hallows. Details like this are what make the series so much fun, but more importantly, they allow the Wizarding world to take on substance and plausibility.


6. Mrs. Weasley's crochet outfit
Though it may be a small visual detail, Mrs. Weasley's weird, drapey, rainbow-colored crochet outfit, worn on the day Harry arrives at the Burrow, is the most nightmarish costume in all eight films. Its ugliness is outweighed only by its absurdity. I loathe it.

5. Wanton destruction
Big-budget movies almost always come loaded with a lot of explosions, but the property damage in the Harry Potter films is quite intense. The rogue bludger doesn't just attack Harry; it rips through support beams, rendering the quidditch arena, I would imagine, very unsafe, and eventually explodes at the words "finite incantatem," which should just make it fall harmlessly to the ground. Nearly every spell, no matter what it means, sends someone sailing across the room or shatters something, while apparently drinking polyjuice potion not only makes one feel sick, but also compelled to smash the glass from which one has drunk. It's hard to see a justification for the added destruction, bangs, and blasts because the plot already has a heck of a lot of those things to begin with, from the flying car's crash into the Whomping Willow to the pixies' mayhem and Harry's battle with the basilisk. Must all the sets and props be smashed as well?

4. Harry falls out of the flying car
During the flight in the Ford Anglia on the way to Hogwarts, Harry inexplicably tumbles out of the car and has to be pulled back in. Given that the book already has a substantial number of thrilling moments and close calls, this addition is unnecessary and frankly a clear bid at reminding the audience that they paid to see a special effects film. It's a pointless, needlessly melodramatic addition to the already long flying car scenes. 

3. Bonnie Wright's entire performance as Ginny
Bonnie Wright is plainly and simply the worst cast actor in the entire series. This would have been the moment to recast her, given that she had only one scene and one line in The Sorcerer's Stone. The emotionless, wooden mediocrity of her performance in this film is dwarfed only by her increasingly stultified performances as the series progressed. Her chemistry with Daniel Radcliffe is about as thrilling as a wet sock. Ginny is one of the most vibrant and vivacious characters in the book; that's why Harry finds her so attractive. Bonnie Wright appears to have the emotional range of a flobberworm.

2. Hermione explains the term "mudblood"
This particular scene was a major misstep in that it introduced an odd inconsistency in character. Malfoy has just called Hermione a "mudblood," which causes Ron to attempt to curse him. The curse backfires and the three friends repair to Hagrid's hut until he stops vomiting slugs. In the book, Ron is enraged, Hagrid is appalled, but Hermione and Harry, who both grew up in Muggle households, understand that the word is rude without knowing what it means. Hermione's extensive knowledge is academic, but she, like Harry, is ignorant of many of the social realities of the Wizarding community. In the film, it's Hermione who explains to Harry what the word means - that it's a derogatory term for a Muggle-born - but this makes no sense. The only one of the three who would understand the implications of this term is Ron and given the importance blood status plays in the plot, particularly of Chamber of Secrets, reassigning those lines is a contradiction in logic.

1. The clapping, bizarrely captive audience
I'll admit that the entire staff and student body of Hogwarts clapping spontaneously at Hagrid's return at the very end of the movie does make me rather happy because Hagrid is great. However, this started a horrible trend that dogged the Harry Potter films to the bitter end. Emotional moments have audiences, patiently listening and emoting with the hero, even though in most cases, the characters are eavesdroppers who don't have the first idea what's going on. In Half-Blood Prince, all the students and staff stand around watching Harry mourn Dumbledore, even though the lion's share have no clue that Dumbledore and Harry were anything other than headmaster and pupil. In Order of the Phoenix, all of Harry's friends show up to watch him struggle against being possessed by Voldemort so that they can make awkwardly sympathetic faces. Aside from the fact that it's incredibly cheesy, the audience effect is also rather condescending because it seems to imply that the film's audience can't be trusted to know when the big emotional moment has arrived. In Chamber of Secrets, most of the students barely know Hagrid - why on earth are they clapping and oh so thrilled because their school's gamekeeper came back and got a hug from a student, that up until mere hours before, they suspected of being the heir of Slytherin? Hundreds of students sitting quietly and attentively, observing an emotional moment with no meaning to them - this is silly and weird, but worst of all, it stretches the verisimilitude of the film very close to its breaking point.

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