[Re-posted from The House Next Door.]
In my commentary on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I observed that director Chris Columbus seemed to rely heavily on production values to create the sense of wonderment that was inherently absent in his images. How a film moves—from scene to scene, shot to shot—is not entirely dependent on massive sets, panoramic effects work, blaring symphonic music, and moody lighting. As I set out to watch Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), the second and final entry from Columbus, I paid close attention to the director’s visual sensibilities and how they compared to the previous film.
To his credit, Columbus attempts to add deeper visual dimension to this sequel. His camera is more mobile; it hurdles, swipes, and dives every which way. This is clear in the opening shot, which starts high above the clouds, zooming past the title before maneuvering over the rooftops of suburban Britain and down to Harry's (Daniel Radcliffe) window. It's smooth, but moves so quickly that it reeks of artifice. Columbus is in such a hurry to get to Harry’s window, as well as to whip around Hogwarts castle between scenes, that the film feels as though it’s playing on fast forward. Another trick Columbus saves for this go-round is the angled shot to signify mystery or villainy. However, like the camera movements in general, these dramatic tilts are so hasty and exaggerated that the effect is mostly hokey. Despite these flourishes, it quickly becomes evident that when he’s not swiping or tilting the camera around, Columbus’ approach is still the same: Action, Reaction. Repeat.
But let’s get into the story. This is, after all, the second installment in the series, so it shouldn't need to waste time with unending exposition and set-up. Alas, the opening passages of Chamber of Secrets are marred by unending exposition and set-up. We have various comings and goings, a few new characters (notably Kenneth Branagh, whose pompous Gilderoy Lockhart brings much-needed life to the film), and no sense that anything of interest will happen at all. Like Sorcerer's Stone, screenwriter Steve Kloves adapts the novel so faithfully that the film suffers. This, coupled with Columbus’ vapid directorial style, suggests that we'll be getting more of the same. But after taking its time getting the characters back to Hogwarts, Chamber of Secrets eventually displays an edge largely absent from the first film. There is a spirited sense of camp that matches well with the darker themes of racial purification and bigotry. Storytelling-wise it is still a mess, but this film has a sense of authorship that, however hokey, sets it apart from Sorcerer's Stone. Columbus' hand is more assured, particularly with action sequences. The final duel, for example, is surprisingly well-orchestrated: Harry takes on a giant snake that has been terrorizing the castle. When the serpentine beast comes into sight for the first time, it is a classic moment that recalls the joyous images of monster movies past. Unlike many CG effects, the creature has weight and dimension and carries with it a genuine sense of awe.
Another highlight finds Harry and Ron (Rupert Grint) in the Dark Forest surrounded by spiders the size of Buicks. Harry’s desire to know who opened the chamber of secrets bounces off Ron’s fear of the increasingly threatening spiders, which appear larger with each successive glimpse. The scene creates tension and builds to a strong payoff, with an army of spiders storming through the woods in pursuit of the heroes. This sequence, like the snake-dueling scene, shows Columbus’ direction coming alive. It has less dialogue, puts aside plot and seems to exist unto itself—a fluid series of images that blend the frightening and the absurd.
Taken together the pair of Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets serve an explicit function—to provide a sterile visualization of Rowling's text. They don’t resonate beyond the relatively inoffensive entertainment they were designed to provide. As I noted in my commentary on Sorcerer’s Stone, both of the Columbus-directed entries feel insulated from the subsequent movies and are thus difficult to situate in relation to the overall arc. But if I am to adopt a more positive view, Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets competently create a foundation of characters and settings and establish a world that has since been developed into a far more interesting one. Columbus’ baseline aesthetic may have been the right approach for providing such groundwork. I can say with confidence that, if nothing else, both films managed this task. They supplied the first images and impressions that, against all criticisms, have permeated the series and fostered its growth.