5/31/08

R060 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

(2002, Fantasy/Children, color)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy

Every Friday the truck pulls up and unloads another few tons of whimsy.

Rating: ****

In a nutshell:

The iconic boy wizard returns to school for his second year/encounter with dark magic.

Summary:

Go on Harry, chop off Dobby's head.  You know you want to...Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets assumes audience familiarity with the events of its predecessor, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, so I’m not going to waste time by summarizing what went before. Here’s my review of the latter film, in case you need to refresh your memory.

Joining the story in progress, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has returned to the abusive care of the Dursleys, consisting of an aunt, uncle and cousin who collectively hate having him around but also can’t bear to let him leave. Don’t bother asking why; the author won’t get around to explaining this for another book or three. On one night in particular, Harry has been confined to his room and warned not to interrupt an important business dinner. Of course this is the night in which a self-mutilating little piece of CGI, a.k.a. Dobby the House Elf, appears to warn Harry not to return to Hogwarts, as there is a plot against his life. When asked for specific details about this plot, Dobby can only crack his head against the furniture, raising a ruckus and drawing the ire of the Dursleys downstairs. When Harry refuses to say he will not return to Hogwarts, Dobby smashes a cake all over the head of the Dursleys’ Very Important Guests.

Harry is, of course, blamed and punished, but it’s all right, because his friend Ron (Rupert Grint) and his brothers somehow sense his distress and rescue him with a flying car. At this point the already only barely existent plot goes into idle mode to make way for a barrage of whimsical encounters, during which we meet Ron’s wildly eccentric family, head back to the wizard-specific shopping mall Diagon Alley for school supplies, meet their narcissistic new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), and exchange sinister threats with school rival Malfoy and his father Lucius. You’d think they’d get back to the plot when school started, but no, there’s some more nonsense with the flying car and an aggressive tree, followed by the unexplained forgiveness of this flagrant destruction of property and violation of school rules.

From Hell's Heart, I thrust my wand at thee!We finally get back to the story when Harry starts hearing voices in the walls that no one else can hear. Soon afterwards, students start turning up petrified accompanied by threatening messages painted on the walls in blood. Harry discovers a magical diary in a haunted toilet. Said diary explains why groundskeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) is to blame, and indeed, the magical powers-that-be seem to have reached that conclusion as well, as Hagrid is carted away to wizard prison. Before he goes, he tells Harry to “follow the spiders” to find out the truth. This piece of advice almost gets Harry and Ron killed by giant, man-eating arachnids, but at least they find out that Hagrid wasn’t to blame after all. They also find out that the creature responsible for the petrifications is called a basilisk, and it emerges from a place in the school called the Chamber of Secrets, which could only be opened by the Heir of Slytherin.

There are a lot of other jumbled explanations, shenanigans and subplots that I could go into, but this summary is long and confusing enough already. Sufficeth to say that the Heir of Slytherin was Voldemort, who wrote the magic diary that falsely accused Hagrid, and whose failed attempt to murder Harry as a baby (again, see the previous book/film) transferred his power to speak to snakes to our eponymous hero. Harry uses this power to open the Chamber of Secrets, kill the serpentine basilisk (with some help from the deus ex machina bird), and destroy the diary. In the end, we discover that it was Malfoy’s father Lucius who planted the diary, which possessed a student, who opened the chamber and petrified all the other students, etc., and so on, whatever. Dobby the House Elf was Lucius’ slave, who could tell Harry there was a plot, but was magically bound not to tell what it was. Harry frees Dobby, all the petrified kids are unpetrified, Hagrid is released from prison, and then everyone applauds for the final twenty minutes of the film. That last statement was not an exaggeration.

Thoughts:

Less frightening than your average ventriloquist's dummy.Chamber of Secrets is, in my estimation, the least of the Harry Potter installments, both as a film and as a book. Novel-wise, Ms. Rowling appears to have been so enamored of her fantasy school setting that she forgot to make the book about anything until she was more than fifty pages in. The film follows suit by including as much of the non-essential prologue as possible so that it’s nearly an hour before anything of consequence bothers to happen.

Dobby the House Elf doesn’t help either. In earlier posts I’ve called him “the Jar Jar Binks of children’s literature,” a comparison I’ve subsequently seen elsewhere online, and heard made by Kevin during the Rifftrax commentary itself. I doubt anyone copied this statement from anyone else. I should think no one would have to. A hideous, computer-generated, rock-stupid comic relief character that contributes nothing to the story beyond vague and insistent feelings of anxiety and nausea? The comparison cries out to be made.

Once the plot finally starts and Dobby mostly drops out, the book staggers back to its feet and marches on without much in the way of further complications. Unfortunately for us, the movie does not follow suit. With only an hour-and-a-half left of running time to go—the last twenty minutes of which is clapping; I wasn’t making that up—the film attempts to compact the rest of the plot without leaving anything out, making the whole thing seem jumbled and perfunctory. Small wonder they got someone else to direct the subsequent installment.

Fortunately, the broadest, messiest, and most exuberantly bad films to receive Rifftrax treatment are often the funniest as well, and this one definitely fits into that category. When Dobby tries to get past his magical gag order to warn Harry at the beginning, he says “This is difficult to say,” to which Bill adds, “I’m your real father.” When the cake drops onto the head of the Dursley’s Very Important Guest, Mike says, “I guess I shouldn’t have served the Tort of Damocles.” When Harry accidentally ends up in a shop of dried hands and severed heads, Kevin says, “This is how creeped out I was when I accidentally wandered into a Bed, Bath and Beyond.” The commentary is consistently funny with a quotable quip every minutes, so much so that approximately forty minutes into the film I looked down and realized I’d found more than enough quotes for this review and stopped writing them down. Though the film itself is far inferior to its predecessor, somehow the Rifftrax for it is much, much funnier.