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3 out of 4 stars

Country
USA
Language
English

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Directed by Chris Columbus

Written by Steve Kloves

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Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Kenneth Branagh, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith

Classification: PG

Rating: ***

We're off to see the wizard again, and I couldn't be more excited -- there's nothing like another Harry Potter movie to stir up the big kid in me. Gone, sadly, is much of the happy hysteria that surrounded the appearance of the first picture -- has it really been a year ago? And gone too, but certainly not missed, is Richard Muggles, the pathetic curmudgeon who -- I'm sure you've forgotten -- used to hold down the film critic's job on these very pages. In fact, it was Muggles's mingy review of the initial Potter flick that steamed his bosses and led to his so-called early retirement. Actually, the old coot was canned to make room for me, and not a moment too soon -- this is a young man's game.

However, generous to a fault, I decided to bounce one more of my fresh ideas off my grateful editors: Why not roust Muggles from his nursing home and have him accompany me to the screening of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? As I patiently explained (these editors are getting on in years themselves), the idea was a nifty reversal of the usual practice. Critics are always bringing kids to movies like this, then eavesdropping on their kiddie reactions. Not me. I'd do just the opposite. Yep, I'd be off to see the wizard with my very own geezer.

Well, to make a long story short, I picked up Muggles during visiting hours, bundled him in his cloak, fetched his cane, and drove merrily on to my favourite downtown multiplex. The lights dimmed, the title credits rolled, I bounced on the edge of my seat while Muggles slumped in his, threatening to doze until I started putting that cane to good use. Two-and-a-half hours of unadulterated fun later, it was all over and we headed off ("Repaired," Muggles muttered) to a nearby coffee shop. There, fuelled by a latte with triple milk, he revived somewhat, and notes were compared. Might as well listen in: Me: "You had to love it, Rich. This was even better than the first one, and I'll tell you why. Four little words: 'Less talk, more action.' " Muggles: "Dear boy, you miss the point once again. What you refer to as 'less talk' is actually a dearth of exposition -- the very exposition which gave the original what charm it had. There, don't you see, the orphaned Master Potter was but an inchoate wizard, and thus, like his surrogates in the audience, viewed everything for the first time through an innocent eye -- the injustice of his foster parents, the Victorian charms of the Hogwarts Academy, the professors and students kindly and cruel, his fumbling attempts to master the magic wand of experience, the rough schoolboy sports, the villain's class-consciousness, all those watered-down Dickensian tropes that the books' author, J. K. Rowling, so cleverly . . ." Me: "Enough of your damn literary references. Nobody misses them. Sure, Rowling may be getting kids to read books again, but only so they can take the much more rewarding step of seeing the movie version. And, Rich, a movie has to move, and this one does, right out of the chute. I mean, how does Harry travel to Hogwarts this time? Not by a musty train, but in a flying car. Big improvement, straight off. And when he arrives, there's much less idle chatter. Just cue the special effects. Like those Cornish pixies that flit about like giant blue mosquitoes. And the small rodents that get turned into water goblets, except one kid's wand misfires and the glass ends up with a stringy tale. That was funny. And what about Professor Dumbledore's phoenix, rising so majestically from its own ashes." Muggles: "T. S. Eliot uses that very image to wondrous advantage in . . ." Me: "And when the Chamber of Secrets finally opens, and Harry and his buddies follow those creepy insects into the lair of the humungous mother spider. And the Basilisk, the giant snake with its sharp serpent's tooth. That's some deliciously scary stuff, and very nicely engineered here. Chris Columbus -- the director, not the one you knew -- is proving that practice does make perfect. Even the quidditch scene -- you remember, that aerial rugby game -- is much zippier this time out. As for the cast, you can't have any complaint there." Muggles: "I do confess to favouring young Daniel Radcliffe in the title role." Me: "Yeah, Radcliffe's fine. My dad tells me that, in his granny glasses, the kid looks a lot like one of those dead Beatles. But I was talking about all the old Brits in the cast. They're back, and they must really appeal to your generation -- Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris." Muggles: "The late . . . " Me: "No, you won't be late. I promised the nurses I'd have you home by tea.

"Anyway, there's also a brilliant acting addition here in Kenneth Branagh as the ultra-vain Professor Lockhart. You know, I once had a pompous poof of a prof just like him way back in '98 in my last year at J-school." Muggles: "Did I ever mention that the truly revelatory thing about Branagh's unabridged Hamlet was . . . " Me: "Rich, you're wandering again." Muggles: "Indeed. More to the point, then, let me counter your effusive praise with a question that can only be considered rhetorical. Between those kinetic outbursts you so admire, did you not find the plot a tad murky and the denouement positively lumbering?" Me: "No and no. At least not to anyone who bothered to stay awake. If you'd been more alert, you might have picked up on the neat moral of the picture, which, you'll agree, applies to every last one of us: 'It's not our abilities which show us what we truly are, but our choices.' " Muggles: "I choose to go home now." Me: "Wrong again, old friend. I choose to take you." And so I did, making polite small talk -- have I mentioned my generous nature? -- on the drive back. Bone weary by now, Muggles offered little in reply. Except once. Just as we reached the home, and before hobbling out of the car, he suddenly got all animated and, with an energy that seemed to surprise even him, burst out:

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"Look. I grant you it's a film that will serve the Potter franchise well, that will not disappoint either youngsters or their parents, and that bears the markings of its solid studio craftsmanship -- worthy performances, credible effects, competent direction. However, despite such stalwart craft, there's a missing element whose absence, forgive me, I can't help but lament. This is a movie about magic that ultimately lacks the magic of movies."

At least, that's what I think he said. Frankly, I was paying more attention to his face, which had grown alarmingly red from the effort of saying so much about so little. Then he got out, and I watched an old man totter down the walkway to his rest.

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